Business-backed challengers favor school choice but call for tight accountability standards

Louisiana’s experiment with charter schools could be restrained and limited if the right mix of candidates running for the state’s top school board seats do not prevail in this year’s election, warn industry officials who are backing several newcomers and three incumbents.

With Gov. Bobby Jindal expected to cruise to re-election, attention has turned to the contested seats on the 11 member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). The governor fills three of the seats by appointment and the other eight are elected.

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 earlier this month, 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. Jindal.

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 Grigsby, a Baton Rouge contractor who helped form the PAC, has told members of the press. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) recently announced several endorsements.

On the other side of the ledger, the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, which includes teachers unions, local school board officials and local superintendents, is backing several candidates that are less keen on the concept of school choice and other reform initiatives favored by Gov. Jindal and former Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

In an interview, James Garvey, the BESE vice-president, who seeks re-election in the first district, expressed concern that union-backed candidates could short-circuit innovations that are just now taking root in the New Orleans Parish Recovery School District (RSD).

“We have seen tremendous results in the New Orleans parish compared to what it was in the period of Katrina and the statistics bear this out,” he said. “I would argue these improvements have come about because of some of the reforms that we have put in place and because charter schools provide parents and students with more options.”

Garvey, who has been endorsed by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), is up against Lee Barrios, a retired middle school teacher, who has been critical of the reforms advanced through BESE. Unfortunately, the public is largely unaware of the large influence BESE has on education policy, Garvey said. This may change now that now that Gov. Jindal has interjected himself into the school board races, he added.

“I think a school has to attract a parent and the parent’s child, instead of having the child assigned to a school by some bureaucrat in a central office,” Garvey said. “I think a school is much more responsive to a child’s family when they do have a choice.”

Although Jindal was able to advance various reforms in partnership with Pastroek, they typically prevailed in narrow 6-5 votes on BESE. The governor would need eight votes on BESE to gain approval for John White, his preferred choice as a successor to Pastorek.

“We are talking about a very important set of elections,” said Brigitte Nieland, the vice-president and communications director for LABI’s education and workforce committee. “We need a good education system because business will need a qualified workforce to compete effectively in an international climate.”

While LABI ardently supports school choice, it does not have a particular preference toward about the delivery method.

“We can have school choice in variety of ways,” she continued. “It can be charter schools, or it could be vouchers or tax credits or something else. But we do believe providing families with options.”

LABI has also endorsed Kira Orange Jones, who heads up the New Orleans branch of Teach for America, in the Second District. Orange Jones is running against incumbent Louella Givens, an attorney and former teacher who has been reliable vote against Jindal’s reforms.

“I’m running because it’s important for us all to find ways to measure student growth and to provide parents with transparent information so they can make informed decisions,” Orange Jones said. “This board [BESE] is vital to our state’s future because it will be setting the direction for our future policies and our public schools and this has huge implications.”

As a career educator, Orange Jones found that students can excel when parents are given more autonomy and school systems are responsive to individual needs.

“I find that a lot of young students are incredibly capable when they are properly motivated,” she said. “But I saw that there were challenges within the system and for this reason parents did not always get the information they needed and we have very capable teachers who were quite understandably frustrated.”

Orange Jones also the charter schools had great potential over the long-term, but that their performance should be carefully measured and monitored.

Donald Songy, the former superintendent of schools for Ascension Parish is challenging incumbent Chas Roemer for the seat in the sixth district. Although he is not opposed to charter schools, Songy does not view them as a panacea and prioritizes other reforms. Songy also serves as the associate executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, which is part of the coalition.

“I’d be very careful about expanding charter schools,” he said. “Some are doing a very good job, but I’m concerned that others have not been fully accountable. I don’t think charter schools are the ultimate answer to the challenges of education in Louisiana.”

Songy favors a “universal, high-quality pre-kindergarten education system across the state” geared toward four-year olds and possibly three-year olds so they can be better prepared when they enter school.

“There’s a group out there that calls themselves the `reform candidates’ and I guess they would describe me as tradition or non-reform, but I have 38 years of experience in education. I was someone who lived reform and made it work in Ascension Parish. I stand for real reform, the kind that is sustainable and not pie in the sky.”

Holly Boffy, who was the 2010 state teacher of the year, is looking to unseat Dale Bayard in the seventh district.

“What I find interesting is that the people less likely to support reform are the ones who come from an education background,” said Boffy, who has been endorsed by LABI. “I see a lot of room for innovation in education and I think the charter schools can play a key role here. Some have performed quite well. Unfortunately, there have been instances where we find there is not enough accountability in some of the other charter schools. We need to ensure that the opportunities that we are giving to students are actually better than what they experienced previously.”

The other LABI newcomer Jay Guillot is running for the open seat in the fifth district against incumbent Keith Guice. As a private business owner, Guillot very much believes there is great value “reinventing” education to keep pace with changing circumstances just as he needed to reconfigure his company.
“We need to close the gap between the BESE board and the classroom,” he suggested. “We need to have better understanding of what the needs are for our teachers and our students here in the 21st century. I better school systems leads to a better society and we can have a bright future here in Louisiana.”

The BESE primary election will be held Oct. 22.

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