Union-Backed BESE Candidates Could Face Stiff Competition

Union-Backed BESE Candidates Could Face Stiff Competition

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@pelicanpolicy.org and followed on Twitter.

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