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Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, left, chats with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, last month. Carter said he will not return to the House Education Committee until House Education Committee Chairman Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, is replaced.

The House Education Committee, one of the key panels in the Louisiana Legislature, is beset by bickering, tension and fallout over a bitter debate more than two weeks ago on how the topic of racism should be handled in colleges and K-12 public school classrooms.

What lit the fuse on April 27 was a bill and comments by Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, chairman of the committee, that would ban colleges and public schools from teaching "divisive concepts," including that Louisiana is racist or sexist.

The blowup caused both the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and Gov. John Bel Edwards to say Garofalo should be replaced as chairman, and the issue is now threatening other education bills and even efforts to overhaul the state's tax code.

Although Republicans outnumber Democrats 10-5 on the committee, the angst exists on both sides.

"My sense is, a couple of weeks ago when we heard the chairman's bill, it was divisive before it was even heard, and that is lingering over us," said Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans and a member of the committee. "No matter what happens in there, that is still lingering over us."

Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge and a six-year veteran of the committee, said lawmakers are sort of walking on eggshells.

"I think it has been tense, but I think it has been tense on the (House) floor at times as well," Edmonds said. "It is tense across the nation."

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, a member of the committee, all but abandoned the panel after the hearing on the Garofalo bill.

"I am not attending a House Education Committee meeting as long as Ray Garofalo is chair," Carter said. "I think he lost the authority, the moral authority, to lead that committee. I think his views that he expressed are concerning."

One committee member, who asked not be identified, expressed frustration and disappointment over the state of the committee.

"People are polarized, and it has been difficult to come together," the lawmaker said.

Others say the bickering is especially unfortunate in a state routinely ranked 48th, 49th and 50th in education achievement, and where less than half of students are prepared for kindergarten.

Although Garofalo retains his title as chairman of the committee, Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, vice chairman, has presided over the panel for long stretches while Garofalo remains in a nearby anteroom or elsewhere.

Rep. Ken Brass, D-Vacherie, another member of the panel, complained last week that Garofalo was allowed to rush into the committee room to vote on a hotly debated bill on how civics and American history is taught in public schools.

"I truly do not understand how the chairman can be in another room watching and cannot preside over the meeting and come in and vote," Brass said.

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The bill passed 8-5 and was sent to the full House, escalating tensions again.

Senators who are sponsoring public school bills are wondering whether their measures will suffer once they are heard in the House Education Committee, and whether their legislation will be killed for reasons unrelated to the merits of the bills.

"I do have some concerns, is the best way to say it," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge and sponsor of a Senate-passed bill that would make kindergarten mandatory in Louisiana.

Garofalo first ignited controversy last month when, during a discussion of his bill on how racism is taught in colleges, he referred to how a hypothetical case of a classroom discussion on slavery could include "the good, the bad, the ugly."

He quickly walked back his comment about the "good" in slavery, and allies contend he has been ridiculously portrayed as somehow sympathetic to slavery.

Garofalo said his bill merited attention and that rules are needed to keep in check college professors who are promoting their own ideologies.

But in the same meeting, Garofalo repeatedly declined to assure the committee that he would not bring the bill back this session — some committee members saw that as a way out of the controversy — and then addressed the full House in what critics said was a halfhearted bid to make amends.

Garofalo did not respond to a request for comment.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, who names committee leaders, rarely talks to reporters and has said little publicly about the issue.

Garofalo's bill that would allow public school systems to try out year-round schooling, which is a priority of state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, is among those in limbo and possibly dead.

The view is that, once the chairman tries to advance one of his bills in committee or on the House floor, critics are liable to pounce.

In addition, leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus said last week they will not back tax overhaul bills pushed by House and Senate leaders because of the lack of action on the Garofalo controversy.

Freeman and others said they are encouraged that behind-the-scenes talks continue between committee members and Schexnayder to find a way out.

Carter noted huge issues will be decided in the final four weeks of the session, some needing two-thirds majorities in the House.

"This body needs to be more united than it is," he said.  

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.