While they held an important office, the members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education tended for years to toil in relative obscurity.
That changed as the BESE board led the charge for accountability with school performance scores. The board also has had a higher profile after it selected several reform-minded superintendents to head the state Department of Education, including today’s holder of the job, John White.
And four years ago, the era of BESE obscurity was definitely over, when races for the eight elected seats on the board were hotly contested.
That was during a vicious political battle over the state’s adoption of a “common core” set of academic standards for schools. It was a good idea that became a political hot potato, especially among Republicans, with then-Gov. Bobby Jindal having backed a common core plan then switching sides to oppose the new standards.
This year, the seats of the eight elected members of BESE will be on fall ballots. Another three members are appointed by the governor.
Fortunately, the common-core standards, slightly revised and rebranded, are now working to provide a better framework for learning for Louisiana students. The mistaken charges of a socialist curriculum have been demonstrated to be unfounded.
And while the majority of BESE members have a strong platform of accomplishment upon which to stand for — election, there is still a significant split in the body.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is closely aligned with teacher union policies and was a critic of White and BESE while he was in the Legislature. His appointees and one elected member, Kathy Edmonston of Gonzales, are often at odds with the business-backed candidates who won seven of eight elected seats in 2015.
In a particularly petty political move, for example, the minority refused to agree with seven members who wanted to extend White’s contract as superintendent. He has been working on a month-to-month contract because it takes eight of 11 votes to name a new superintendent, and the seven-four split made renewal for a longer term impossible.
The election is not until the fall, and most incumbent members have said they are leaning toward seeking re-election.
Qualifying is in August. While one can expect teacher groups to be active in recruiting candidates, challengers have been slow to emerge. Edwards’ policy differences with the majority of the board might be part of the debate in contested races, but the governor might be too busy with his own race for re-election to meddle in the BESE seats.
In any case, it appears the governor, White, teacher unions and BESE members are likely to join in supporting Edwards’ push in the Legislature for the first statewide teacher pay raise in a decade.
A lot of politicians might want to have a higher profile, but the relative stability of the reform-oriented majority of the board and White’s tenure — he is one of the longest-serving state superintendents — has meant a lot of progress on key issues, including accountability, academic standards, and improving the instructional component in early childhood programs.
There’s a lot to be said for quietude in pursuit of better educational outcomes for Louisiana public-school children.