Garofalo

State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, chairs the House Education Committee.

Louisiana's education landscape has a new look in 2020, including the key state lawmakers who will decide the fate of bills on charter schools, aid for public schools and teacher job reviews.

Both the state House and Senate education committees will have new chairmen when the legislative session begins March 9.

State Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, will lead the Senate panel, and five of its seven members are new to the committee.

Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, who is something of an unknown on public school issues, is the new chairman of the House Education Committee.

That 16-member panel includes 10 lawmakers who will be newcomers to the committee and six who just arrived at the Legislature.

"I think the problem with the House is there are just too many people that we don't know where they stand," said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

The new look for education decision makers is not limited to the State Capitol.

State Superintendent of Education John White, an eight-year veteran who has played a key role in public school debates, is resigning two days after the session begins.

In addition, four of the 11-member state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education are newcomers, and Sandy Holloway, of Thibodaux, was just elected president of the board.

Education debates, as they often do, are sure to spark attention during the nearly three-month legislative gathering, including teacher pay raises.

"I think the work of these committees is some of the most important work going on in the state because it impacts 720,000 kids and thousands of teachers," said Caroline Roemer, president of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has put new aid for early childhood education — $25 million — at the top of his education wish list.

Whether the two committees continue to support major changes in public schools, as they have for the past four years, is one of the biggest questions.

Those panels routinely killed a wide range of bills pushed by Edwards, who is aligned with the state's two teacher unions, superintendents and school board members. Republicans control both chambers, and the GOP remains in firm control of both education panels.

The GOP will fill five of seven slots on the Senate panel and 11 of 16 on the House committee, similar to the past four years.

Erwin and his allies hope both revamped committees remain supportive of charter schools, public school accountability and vouchers, which are state aid for children from low-income families to attend public schools.

One such ally, Brigitte Nieland, said she likes the makeup of both committees.

"I think we are in good shape," said Nieland, who is government affairs director for Stand for Children.

She said Garafalo "has consistently been very solid and supportive of education reform."

Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said some changes in public schools in recent years "have negatively affected our children."

"If you look at the makeup, it looks like the people who have supported traditional public schools, public education, it looks like we don't have as many on the committees as we once did," Posey said.

In the education overhaul session of 2012, Garofalo voted yes on three key bills pushed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal — the statewide expansion of vouchers, tougher rules for annual teacher evaluations and a remake of Louisiana's early childhood education system.

Garofalo did not return messages for comment.

Fields served in the Senate from 1997-2007, just before the major push to overhaul public schools.

During his 2019 campaign, he said he believes state tax dollars should follow the child regardless of school choice — a popular theme of self-styled school reformers.

The state has 149 charter schools used by about 80,000 students in 22 parishes, including about 40,000 in the New Orleans area.

Roemer said she is anxious to learn where Fields and Garofalo stand on charter schools and other issues. "My hope is they will align around the mission my organization is passionate about, and that is giving parents more choices," she said.

Charter schools are public schools run by nongovernmental boards and are supposed to offer innovative methods in the classroom.

In a sign of the turnover, the Senate Education Committee is set to meet at 9 a.m. Monday to get a briefing on public schools and colleges and universities from their leaders.

Fields declined to say whether he is more aligned with traditional public school groups or those who have spent years pushing for major changes, and against rollbacks of the new policies.

Teachers unions struggled in the past four years to win approval for their agenda, including curbs on relatively new charter school and teacher review policies.

They often had an ally in former Senate Education Committee Chairman Blade Morrish, R-Jennings. But Morrish was regularly outvoted on his own committee on high-profile votes, and former House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, was seen as less sympathetic to the aims of teachers unions.

Shane Riddle, director of legislative and political affairs for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said he feels "pretty good" about the House and Senate education committees, and his group has good working relationships with panel members.

"I think we will be able to work with them," Riddle said.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.