The state “school board” is the shorthand version of the longer handle, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE is no longer the relatively quiet body that worked on state school policy away from the spotlight. The “action” was at the local school board levels.
Today, state policymakers are more active in the governance of schools. BESE supervises the vital accountability process that rates schools’ and districts’ performance. Also, it is an actual school board, in the sense that its Recovery School District directly supervises failing schools taken over by the state — most of them in New Orleans, but also some in other parts of the state.
As the stakes at BESE have risen, there has been a growing polarization: Those who call themselves reformers, backing charter schools and other innovations, stigmatize their opponents as teacher union stooges backing a status quo that isn’t working. Backers of traditional public schools are embattled and indignant, casting slurs about political interference by unqualified amateurs more interested in union-busting and subsidizing private schools over public education.
We do not exaggerate. Statements from the two camps are that undignified.
There are dogs and cats, sharply divided about education policy, and seven of eight BESE election districts are seeing heated races on Saturday. Usually, community leaders have had some trouble finding people willing to run for BESE posts; many voters skipped the races because the candidates, if there were two, were so unfamiliar.
Now, it’s a war-room mentality that is intended to whip voters into going to the polls.
As with most Mars-versus-Venus situations, we hope the election gets some of the snarling out of the way. There should be enough middle ground for the new BESE members elected in the fall, along with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s three appointees to the board, to promote reforms people can agree on.
At the end of the day, the interests of public education are wider than the relatively few policy decisions that have provoked so much name-calling.