After more than a decade of trying to improve public schools Louisiana is nearing a crossroads.

Who the next state superintendent of education will be is unclear, and may remain so until January.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, is about to undergo a shakeup with eight of its 11 seats on the Oct. 22 ballot.

And Gov. Bobby Jindal, barring a major turn of events, will set the tone for where public schools are headed in the next four years.

Meanwhile, there have been whispers for months that, assuming Jindal coasts to re-election, major proposals are in the works for public schools and other areas, especially if an already compliant Legislature turns even more compliant in 2012.

Yet what happens next is crucial because, despite some nice gains since 2000 or so, the state remains sort of a public education backwater.

Three damning sets of figures help tell the story:

  •  Louisiana got an “F” for student achievement earlier this year in a report dubbed the most comprehensive snapshot of public education in the nation.
  •  One in three public school students is performing below grade level.
  •  Nearly half of the state’s roughly 1,300 public schools are expected to get a “D” or “F” this fall under a new system of assigning letter grades for student performance.

Who succeeds former state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek will play a big role in whether a public school breakthrough happens, or things roll back.

Pastorek clashed with teacher unions, superintendents and local school board members.

Yet there is a widespread view that, if Louisiana is ever going to have a top-flight public school system, it has to have a change agent in charge of the state Department of Education.

Right or wrong, Jindal’s office is convinced that is John White, who is the 35-year-old superintendent of the Recovery School District.

White is former deputy chancellor for the New York City school system. He is in charge of troubled public schools in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and elsewhere.

Yet Jindal’s team has been unable to get the eight votes on BESE needed to make White interim superintendent, and in place for the long-term job when the new board takes office in January.

Ollie Tyler is serving as acting superintendent, and grappling with a growing charter school controversy.

All of this takes place amid a decade of work on public schools, including student and teacher assessment systems that have won national praise.

The state has earned a reputation as a hotbed of education innovation, including the explosive growth of charter schools.

Louisiana is also one of the poorest states in the nation, which complicates any push to improve public schools.

Yet any gains since 2000 pale in comparison to persistently low student achievement, and other problems.

State aid to public schools has been virtually frozen for three consecutive years.

Officials are preparing a controversial new way to evaluate teachers, with student achievement counting for half of the assessment.

The future of state-run public schools, especially with tougher scores on the horizon, is unclear.

Yet Louisiana is at a crossroads because a decade of improvement efforts is only about half the time needed to make long-term changes.

The status quo crowd has resisted every major bid to improve schools, including the requirement that fourth- and eighth-graders pass a modest test called LEAP before they move to the fifth and ninth grades.

During the 2011 regular legislative session some lawmakers tried to roll back school changes, including plans to assign them letter grades.

While most of those efforts failed, it is significant that a wide range of lawmakers and school groups believe the problem is tougher standards, not dismal student achievement.

Louisiana’s latest bid to fix its public education system has gone through three governors and three state superintendents, with a fourth superintendent on the way.

All the effort and controversy may pave the way for a transformation of public schools.

Or it may turn out to be just another short-lived school improvement plan that got run off the road.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is