Education leaders need to step up

Special to the Herald-Guide
August 12, 2011 at 9:14 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis,

As always this time of year, hopes and expectations are high for two-thirds of a million students returning to public schools.

The same could be said for the decade-long political movement to change the course of public education toward more accountability for students, teachers and principals, as well as more autonomy and responsibility at the school level. Yet, for supporters, there are troubling signs in the approaching fall elections for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Though backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, BESEís movement toward charter schools, test-driven accountability and performance-based teacher evaluations is being tested by renewed resistance from teacher unions, school boards and superintendents and by the lack of clear leadership on the administrationís side.

The departure of former superintendent Paul Pastorek, who advocated for the so-called progressive movement but who turned off nearly everyone else, was seen as an opportunity to ease the divisiveness, reset the change agenda and bolster its slim 6-5 BESE majority by electing new members this fall.

Increasing that majority became a cause for business groups that pledged to raise money for like-minded candidates. But their problem has been finding the candidates. Fewer public-spirited citizens are willing to run for an office that comes without salary but with strict financial disclosure requirements, that entails enduring long, often contentious board meetings, all to advance policies that are often rejected or sidetracked by the Legislature.

On the other side, a new group, the Coalition for Public Education, comprised of the teacher unions and local school officials, has formed for the purpose of picking off one or two seats held by administration supporters and thus flipping the board majority. Besides his three appointees, the governor can count on the votes of only three of the eight elected members--and now two of those seats are in doubt.

In the 3rd District, in bayou country, Glenny Lee Buquet, a governorís ally, is not running for re-election, and no strong candidate has emerged to replace her.

Almost as uncertain is the situation in the capital region, where the member pegged by some to be the next chairman, Chas Roemer, has yet to declare he will run again, after saying earlier this year that he might not. His silence is keeping other like-minded candidates from getting into the race, leaving the field so far to the Coalition candidate, respected retired Ascension Parish School Superintendent Donald Songy.

The oldest son of the former governor, Roemer is every bit as intelligent and eloquent as the old man, but also smoother and cheerier. He possesses all the political gifts, except the burning desire that would put ambition before his young family and business career. Part-time service on BESE seemed to suit his lifestyle. Yet, as simple a step as running for re-election, given mounting expectations of him, could set him on an irrevocable course in his fatherís footsteps that he may not want to follow.

With two seats at risk, the progressive movementís best prospects, perhaps its future leadership, could ride on the 7th District election, where the 2010 state teacher of the year, Holly Boffy of Lafayette, is challenging Dale Bayard of Sulphur, who has been a reliable vote for the teachers and local officials.

On most major policy questions, BESE is limited to recommending changes in the law to the Legislature. Yet lawmakers are hardly emboldened to adopt controversial measures that only squeak through BESE and then lack a strong superintendent to advocate for them at the Capitol.

Supporters of the administration agenda speak hopefully of getting the next Legislature to tackle the explosive issue of teacher tenure. They have a cliff to scale, given that a bill to end busdriver tenure failed to clear committee last session. Changing either, or adopting stronger teacher evaluations based on student performance, is unlikely without a hard push coming from BESE and a new superintendent.

Even to hire the state superintendent that the governor wants, John White, 35, head of the Recovery School District, will take eight of 11 votes, which arenít there on the current board, and could be fewer on the next one.

To continue pushing public education in the direction it needs to move requires leadership above all. Someone better step up.

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