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John Bel Edwards & Louisiana Democrats Go Backwards on Public Education

John Bel Edwards and Louisiana Democrats' positions on public education these days are off target.

A bill pre-filed by State Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) on Wednesday indicates that he plans to resume his attack on charter schools during the upcoming legislative session. Edwards’ proposed legislation, House Bill 101, would force charter schools to follow the same eligibility and certification guidelines required for staff in traditional public schools. Freedom from these rules is a key component of charter schools’ autonomy-for-performance contracts. H.B. 101 is nearly identical to a bill he filed during last year’s session; that proposal never got out of committee. [N.B.: On Thursday, Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith (D-Baton Rouge) pre-filed House Bill 124, which also would require charter schools to follow traditional eligibility and certification guidelines.]

new-ldp-logo-291x300Edwards’ attempt to hamstring charter schools won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his recent criticism of Louisiana’s teacher evaluation system, accountability provisions, and even the state’s adoption of Common Core. What’s more surprising – or rather, disappointing – is the Louisiana Democratic Party‘s embrace of Edwards’ candidacy for governor along with his education views.

Not too long ago, Louisiana Democrats – most notably former Governor Kathleen Blanco – embraced common-sense reform policies aimed at improving the state’s notoriously low-performing public schools. But over the past 10 years, the party has seen a rapid decline in fortunes as power and influence has shifted to the GOP, both in Baton Rouge and across the state. As recently as 2004, Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats and six statewide offices, including Governor; today, Republicans control every major statewide office and even Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu faces a tough reelection campaign. At the same time, we’ve witnessed a corresponding retrenchment among Louisiana Democrats on education policy, possibly reflecting the party’s efforts to shore up the support of its traditional base, which includes teachers unions.

Louisiana Democrats once championed bold education reforms, such as former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who had the courage to takeover New Orleans’ failing schools after Katrina.
Louisiana Democrats once championed bold education reforms, such as former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who had the courage to takeover New Orleans’ failing schools after Katrina.

Nevertheless, it’s doubtful that their retreat from education reform will help Democrats regain their electoral momentum or get Edwards into the Governor’s mansion. Why? To start, if a Democratic candidate hopes to have a chance of winning statewide office, s/he must be able to capture the support of a significant number of independents (who currently comprise almost 25% of all registered voters in Louisiana) and probably some moderate Republicans, as well. Yet Edwards’ regressive views on education are out-of-step with those of most Louisianians and won’t help his chances against a formidable opponent like David Vitter.

Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that most of the party’s own supporters share Edwards’ opinions on education policy. So far, the shift in attitude away from reform hasn’t translated into a noticeable increase in support for Democrats. Instead, their increasingly reactionary positions on education issues may only succeed in alienating a growing – and potentially influential – contingent of pro-reform Democratic voters. For as Kira Orange Jones‘ victory over incumbent Louella Givens in the race for BESE’s 2nd District seat clearly demonstrated, a reform-oriented Democrat can mobilize voters and beat the odds.

Kira Orange Jones’ election to the state board of education showed that a reform-oriented Democrat can mobilize voters and beat the odds.
Kira Orange Jones’ election to the state board of education showed that a reform-oriented Democrat can mobilize voters and beat the odds.

Finally, Louisiana Democrats recently squandered a chance to exploit a deepening rift among Republicans over Louisiana’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). As reported by the Times-Picayune’s Lauren McGaughy, GOP infighting over CCSS presented Democrats with a perfect opportunity to assume leadership on the issue and take Governor Jindal to task for appearing to waffle on his commitment to the standards:

“Behind closed doors, [CCSS] supporters say the fight is largely political, fueled by far-right conservatives and local tea party groups with a smattering of education-based concerns among parents…some are looking to the governor to take a firm stance.”

Louisiana Democrats were presented with an chance for leadership on Common Core, but “Team Blue Dat”  blew dat opportunity.
Louisiana Democrats were presented with an chance for leadership on Common Core, but “Team Blue Dat” blew dat opportunity.

Instead, Democrats sat silently on the sidelines for weeks and when they finally did speak out, their message on Common Core was muddled and frustrating. Louisiana Democratic Party spokesperson, Kirstin Alvanitakis, called the roll-out of CCSS a “train wreck” before lumping it together with Jindal’s voucher program and adding:

“At some point, the Jindal administration needs to realize they should work with the people who actually work in the classroom, not shove them to the side in the name of  ‘education reform.'”

John Bel Edwards’ response was no less disappointing:

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Perhaps the growing antipathy of Louisiana Democrats towards education reform is part of their apparent strategy for the upcoming election cycle: to oppose anything remotely supported by the Jindal Administration. However, trying to capitalize on Jindal’s dismal approval ratings by attacking policies that have helped improve public education in this state isn’t a winning strategy – unless your aim is to remain the minority party. As a lifelong Democrat committed to high-quality public schools, I hope my party comes its senses on these issues sooner rather than later.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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