“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I would venture to guess that most people are familiar with this aphorism, which is usually (although inaccurately) attributed to Albert Einstein. I say “most people” because the behavior of Governor John Bel Edwards suggests that he hasn’t absorbed this bit of wisdom. In fact, the line almost perfectly describes his repeated efforts to roll back the state’s education reform policies, including his recent failed attempt to block State Superintendent John White’s plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
During his tenure in the legislature, Edwards filed education bills – against charters, accountability, Common Core, etc. – that almost always died in committee. The cycle would repeat itself again the following year when he submitted nearly identical legislation.
As a candidate for governor, he allied himself with the teachers unions, railed against school grades, and promised to replace State Superintendent White if elected. To his credit, Edwards eventually did pull off a stunning upset, defeating Senator David Vitter in a runoff and becoming the first Democrat elected to statewide office in seven years. Yet those same elections returned a sizable pro-reform majority to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), meaning his promises to pare back accountability and boot John White were dead on arrival.
At that point, one might have expected that Edwards would see the writing on the wall and quietly drop his anti-education reform crusade. Although voters backed Edwards over Vitter, the outcome of the BESE races made clear they had no interest in reversing Louisiana’s school reforms. Plus, the newly-elected Governor had far more pressing matters to address, including a yawning $750 million budget deficit that his predecessor’s short-sighted fiscal policies had created.
More Unforced Errors on Education
Of course, that didn’t stop Governor Edwards from continuing to squander political capital on his education battles. When he unveiled his legislative agenda last spring, the education proposals in it read like a teachers union wishlist. Nearly all of them were rejected by state lawmakers.
Edwards then issued an executive order establishing the Advisory Council on the Every Student Succeeds Act, tasked with developing recommendations on how the state should revise its education policies to align with new federal law.
The move left observers scratching their heads for several reasons. First, the Governor has very little say over K-12 education policy (that power is vested in BESE and the Legislature) and State Superintendent John White already had a timeline in place for gathering public input and developing Louisiana’s ESSA plan. Second, Edwards packed the council with individuals who were affiliated with (or in bed with) the teachers unions, which called the legitimacy of the entire undertaking into question. And finally, because council members were known education reform opponents, their recommendations would almost certainly conflict with those of White, setting the stage for an eventual showdown between Edwards and the State Superintendent of Education.
At the time, I wrote a post urging the Governor to avoid “a prolonged and unpleasant fight over the state’s ESSA plan” that he was unlikely to win. He didn’t. His advisory council issued recommendations that were at odds with White’s proposal. The disagreement was then used as a pretext to call for a five-month delay in the plan’s submission to the feds. Edwards joined that call in a letter last week, in which he described White’s ESSA proposal as “an incomplete vision for Louisiana” and told the State Superintendent to rework it and send it to the U.S. Department of Education in September.
Where’s the political calculus?
There’s a fine line between between persistence and obstinacy, and when one considers the potential political costs involved in the Governor’s repeated efforts to roll back the state’s reforms, it’s clear that John Bel Edwards has crossed it.
I say this because, in most other respects, Edwards has done an admirable job as Governor (and has the approval ratings to back it up), especially considering the challenges he has faced. He entered office at a time when Louisiana was facing a fiscal crisis and has been willing to make difficult decisions to get the state’s balance sheet in order. With the exception of education issues, Edwards has largely stuck with his promise to lead from the center and has rightly drawn praise for his responses to the shooting tragedies in Baton Rouge and last summer’s disastrous floods.
Still, his political future is anything but certain. Edwards is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and that fact alone makes him a target. Earlier this month, America Rising, a D.C.-based political action committee that conducts opposition research on Democratic incumbents, launched a media campaign against Edwards even though he isn’t up for reelection until 2019. On their website, America Rising portrays Edwards as a “big government liberal,” who “protects teachers unions.”
So when Edwards publicly sides with the teachers unions and tries to roll back school reform policies, he’s simply making the job of his political opponents that much easier. At the same, he’s also alienating the pro-reform Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents he will need to get reelected. It just doesn’t make sense.
Let’s hope that Governor Edwards soon realizes that his fight against education reform is a lose-lose situation: Bad for kids and bad for his political career.
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