By John Maginnis
Years ago, an aspiring young legislator contemplating his next move was advised to run for the Board of Elementary Secondary Education as a stepping stone, perhaps, for Congress or statewide office.
"No way," he responded, saying that running for BESE as a champion for public education was a good way to go nowhere fast in politics. The people with money, he reasoned, donít care about BESE because they send their kids to private or church schools. Whatís more, outside of parents, the middle class is not invested in public education because the highest-in-the-nation homestead exemption largely relieves them of paying for it.
That has left those with the greatest stake in the system--the teachers, superintendents, employees and local school boards--to organize and win BESE elections. That was made easier by lack of competition from candidates backed by the business community, which was focused on legislative elections.
This is the year that changed.
"BESE races are where itís at," said Timmy Teepell, the governorís campaign manager, but also the prime mover behind the GOP Victory Fund, which is spending heavily in BESE campaigns.
The Republicans are joined by a deep-pocketed coalition of business groups that are active for the first time in education elections.
They are opposed by the Coalition for Public Education, comprised of the statewide organizations for teachers, superintendents and school boards, which are using their extensive grass-roots networks to counter the financial advantage of the conservative coalition.
As one consultant put it, the Republicans and business PACs, with all their money, can only marginally improve the conservative majority in the Legislature, but they can have a profound effect on BESE by turning just a couple of seats while defending the ones held by their allies.
Why that now matters so much to business leaders is their commonly held view that the greatest barrier to economic development in Louisiana is not the tax structure, government regulation or the legal system, but the shortage of skilled workers to fill available jobs and the additional jobs that could be created. The fastest way to change that is through better public schools, whether their kids attend them or not. The business coalition is targeting two districts for turnover: in northeast Louisiana, where incumbent Keith Guice, a Monroe Democrat and former superintendent, is being challenged by Republican businessman Jay Guillot of Ruston; and in the southwest, where incumbent Dale Bayard of Lake Charles, who recently switched to Republican, faces GOP newcomer Holly Boffy, the 2010 state teacher of the year, from Lafayette Parish.
Those groups also are supporting Teach for America leader Kira Orange-Jones in an uphill race in the New Orleans-based district against incumbent Louella Givens, who, despite a $1.3 million IRS lien on her business and a DWI arrest this year, is backed by some local officials and the Louisiana Association of Educators and will be hard to beat.
The ultimate goal of the business coalition is to give Gov. Bobby Jindal a clear board majority that will enable him to hire the superintendent he wants and to press his agenda for charter schools and performance-based teacher evaluations. Changes in K-12 education figure to be the centerpiece of his legislative agenda in 2012, leading to a showdown with teacher unions and school boards over modifying tenure.
Why K-12 education matters so much to Jindal, for his future, is that, by the end of his second term, he hardly will be able to claim to be an effective governor if public education still drags in the rear of national rankings.
The challenge before him was twice underscored recently. The release of the new letter-grade system for performance of state schools showed 44 percent had Ds or Fs. Also, Public Affairs Research Council released an in-depth report that put Louisianaís dropout rate among the highest in the nation and its high school graduation rate among the lowest.
The good news is that 20 percent fewer schools have Ds or Fs compared to the levels if letter grades had been used four years ago. Also, the 2010-11 statistics released this week showed an increase in the graduation rate and a marked decrease in the dropout rate. That indicates the administration is on the right track in public education even if it has a long way to go.