Column

Louisiana’s new governor shouldn’t seek to fire the schools’ chief – yet

Planning for the long haul

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

John Bel Edwards hugs his wife after taking the oath of office as Louisiana governor on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. Edwards is Louisiana’s 56th governor.

A little-known state representative from Amite, Louisiana toppled the giants of Sen. David Vitter and the Grand Old Party to become the state’s 56th governor.

Seemingly armed with a slingshot, Democrat John Bel Edwards slung a healthy supply of teacher angst at his powerful rivals en route to an unforeseen victory. But Gov. Edwards has yet another challenge, after taking office this week with a clear mandate from the teachers who voted for him: To see to the removal of state education superintendent John White, titular head of the school reform movement.

Leading up to the election, Edwards said he would like a new schools chief. By edict, White’s fate is in the hands of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and White ostensibly has enough votes to keep the job but not enough votes to have his contract renewed.

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But now that Edwards is in office he is expected to deliver for those who voted him into the position. Edwards received endorsements from both teachers unions: the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE). Both have opposed many policies under White.

As a member of Edwards’ education transition team, I can tell you that there were clear policy differences between team chairman Scott Richard and White. And then there are the thousands of teachers who felt both superintendents during the Jindal administration (Paul Pastorek and White) used education reform as a license to blame teachers.

In a statement announcing the union’s endorsement, LFT President Steve Monaghan said, “When Gov. Jindal and his allies demonized our teachers and attacked public education with the ill-conceived, unconstitutional schemes of 2012, Rep. Edwards was one of the heroes who actually read the legislation, did his own homework, and stood tall in defense of our constitution, our kids, teachers, and communities.”

Although the BESE controls White’s fate, a governor can wield the budgetary process, committee composition and other ways to put pressure on BESE members to force a change. We know Edwards will put forth legislation to assuage his constituents. However, should Edwards take aim at White at this time?

Edwards has three other legislative mandates that are much heavier lifts for policymakers than many of the K-12 education issues he promised for his anti-White, education voting base. Edwards’ new commissioner of administration Jay Dardenne said that outgoing governor Bobby Jindal left a “$750 million deficit in the current budget with six months to go and a projected $1.9 billion budget hole for the fiscal year 2016-17.” To add to those money woes, Edwards pledged to increase higher education funding to 80 percent of the Southern Regional Education Board’s per-pupil average. Since 2008, state colleges and universities have coped with a decrease of approximately $700 million, the Board of Regents is asking for about double — $769 million — of what they received this year for the new budget.

Edwards announced his plans for Medicaid expansion, which would require “the hiring of 248 employees to handle the surge, which is expected to add about 300,000 new enrollees to the government program.” Bobby Jindal blocked this action, which was the principle component of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Superintendent of Education John White

Let’s be clear. Edwards will have to raise taxes. If there are political chips to turn in, it will be to raise taxes and address the aforementioned weightier issues.

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Edwards should have a schools’ chief who is a member of his team, but who can bring a certain gravitas that anchors a leader against political trends. But let’s hope Edwards moves away from the kind of educational leadership we’ve seen in cities all across the country.

“Getting the job done by any means necessary” has become the main bullet point on school superintendents’ resumes. Leadership in education is too often reduced to administrative execution. Any many ways, John White typifies this style and era of educational leadership. A national education reform agenda has all but obliterated the idea that states should have plans that address the unique cultural needs of their communities. Millions of outside dollars are poured into Louisiana state board elections to ultimately protect White. Promoting charters, vouchers, teacher evaluation and Common Core was the predictable package deal in which advocates fight blindly for or against. The resulting conflagration isn’t healthy for educational growth.

However, authentic leadership is never by any means. Leadership is about acting out ethically, with foresight and in ways that doesn’t value martyrdom. Serving the goals of a partisan agenda has overshadowed the ability to plan for the long haul.

If the newly elected governor of Louisiana wants to excel in education, he should not become the beast he despises. Yes, Edwards will have to find a new state superintendent, but he shouldn’t sell the farm to do so. That’s why we’re in this mess.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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