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Union-Backed BESE Candidates Could Face Stiff Competition

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Supporters of school choice and tenure reform could benefit from new PAC

Union-backed school board candidates who oppose school choice initiatives, teacher evaluations, heightened curriculum standards, the abolition of tenure and other policy changes could face strong opposition this fall.

All eight of the elected seats on the 11 member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) are open to primary challenges on Oct. 22.Only one incumbent, Linda Johnson, a Plaquemine resident, has announced that she is not seeking re-election. Glenny Lee Buquet of Houma, indicated earlier this year that she would not seek another term. But on Monday, she unexpectedly announced that she would seek re-election. Buquet, a former BESE president who has served on the board since 1992, said she reconsidered after speaking with Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“I asked Glenny to strongly consider running again because we are at such an important point for Louisiana’s education system,” Jindal said in a press statement.

The remaining three seats are appointed by the governor’s office. Penny Dastugue, a Mandeville resident, and Connie Bradford, of Baton Rouge, have expressed their interest in remaining on the board, while John Bennett of Port Allen has indicated that he will step down.

At least six of the elected seats could be highly competitive now that a new political action committee (PAC) called The Alliance for Better Classrooms (ABC) has entered the fray. ABC will spend at least $1 million on “reform candidates” who support its policy objectives, Lane Grisby, a Baton Rouge contractor who helped form the PAC, has told members of the press.

The Alliance favors “student-based budgeting,” which gives principals more flexibility in local appropriations, school choice programs and annual teacher evaluations. Gov. Jindal and former Superintendent Paul Pastorek frequently secured 6-5 votes on BESE to advance many of the policy changes that ABC supports.

As part of his own re-election effort, Jindal is expected to campaign on behalf of some of the BESE candidates. Eight votes are needed from BESE to confirm a new superintendent.

Chas Roemer, an incumbent who has supported reforms, has announced that he will seek re-election. Although the “vast majority” of teachers continue to perform effectively, the “current system protects those who don’t get the job done,” he said. For this reason, the existing tenure rules should be changed, he argued. Roemer also favors school vouchers as a way to empower parents who could not otherwise afford to send their children to the school of their choice.

“The status quo will argue that vouchers will hurt the system, but they’re not going to hurt the system if their schools are competitive,” he observed. “But if a school is not the school of choice then we need to ask why. We also need to ask why it’s right to send a child to a school that is not working.”

Roemer has been endorsed by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), which has also lined up behind some of the new challengers including Kira Orange Jones, executive director of Teach for America in Louisiana, a non-profit group  aimed at eliminating inequality in education. Orange Jones will face off against incumbent Louella Givens, a New Orleans lawyer and former teacher, who has consistently voted against reforms favored by Jindal and Pastorek.

LABI and ABC are also looking to unseat Dale Bayard of Lake Charles and favor his opponent Holly Boffy of Lafayette. LABI has endorsed Boffy, who was Louisiana’s 2010 teacher of the year. Boffy is an outspoken opponent of teacher tenure. Under current policy, a teacher can secure tenure after three years on the job if he or she meets certain requirements.

Current and prospective school board members who favor tenure and oppose various reforms including school choice will have their own political muscle behind them in the upcoming election. In April, a new statewide group called the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, which includes teachers unions, local school board officials and local superintendents, came together in an effort to oppose the policy changes Jindal continues to push.

“What we see in the state leadership is simple capitalistic ideology, a kind of `Disaster Capitalism,’ not an emphasis on quality education,” Dr. James Taylor, president of the Louisiana Retired Teachers Association, said when the coalition was formed.

But Brigitte Nieland, vice-president, communications director, of the Education and Workforce Development Council for LABI, views the coalition as an entity that is too fixated on expenditures that do not translate into tangible results.

“What they are demanding is more money and less accountability,” she said. “We are talking about strong philosophical differences.”

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be reached at kmooney@pelicaninstitute.org and followed on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    Buquet now will run. And, interestingly, one of the top reformer targets, Dale Bayard facing a strong challenge from Holly Boffy, filed as a Republican after always running as a Democrat (as did Walter Lee, also an anti-reformer, but who is unlikely to face opposition). For more on this contest, see http://jeffsadow.blogspot.com/2011/08/real-policy-consequences-to-come-from.html.

  • Pingback: Gov. Jindal Expected to Campaign on Behalf of School Reform Candidates | Kevin Mooney()

  • Lee Barrios

    One reason for Governor Jindal’s dwindling approval ratings by both Republicans and Democrats is his apparent support of privatization for many public services including public education. That and his efforts to take away the democratic responsibility of his constituency to elect representatives for positions such as the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education (BESE) are both insulting and dangerous.

    Many of us resent the unbalanced and misguided influence of the federal government in issues like public education that should be reserved for state and local communities. We also have no desire for our Governor or any single private interest to dictate to the taxpayers of Louisiana who should sit on their local and state policymaking bodies. We rely on the strength of our diverse local communities to bolster the economy and support a quality education for each and every one of our children.

    The so-called “reform” proponents have taken ownership of that word along with others like “choice,” “autonomy,” “accountability” and “innovation.” They have turned them into empty pronouncements used to marginalize the efforts of qualified, experienced education professionals to preserve and improve our public schools. They have made great strides with their “turnaround” strategy to take away the ability of parents and other citizens to participate in and support their schools. The mini-businesses created through charters have drained the taxpayer coffers and left many school districts struggling to provide mandated services to their children.

    No candidate should oppose teacher evaluations that fairly identify and provide support for effective teachers, flexibility to local schools, effective innovative reforms that improve the quality of education, and real choice that includes parents’ right to enroll their children in excellent schools in their own neighborhoods. True accountability and oversight is essential and includes
    transparency in the questionable or wasteful expenditures of taxpayer dollars to private management companies, “employment agencies,” and out-of-state consulting contracts.

    It is incumbent upon every citizen to explore the challenges confronting education during this election cycle when both sides of the issue will be presented by candidates. The media appear to be misinformed and are unreliable sources for unbiased or complete coverage. You can learn more about these issues from my perspective as an experienced, qualified educator at http://www.geauxteacher.com.