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Governors vs. Politics

The gritty side of education

Brian Hubble illustration

The New Year brings new hope for higher education with the inauguration of Gov. John Bel Edwards. Even though tackling the state’s deficit-ridden budget is the first call of duty, the constant budget-busting that colleges and universities endured under former Gov. Jindal appears to be over.

The new governor, who’s strongly aligned with teachers unions, will likely speak of teachers with more respect than his predecessor did. However, if he tries to tinker too much with reforms that have led to recent student performance improvements, he could do some damage in the area of elementary and secondary schools. Teachers unions have opposed important reforms, such as charter schools and changes to tenure requirements.

 In fact, teachers unions tend to legally challenge all education reforms, especially those that scrutinize what they do in the classroom too much. How Edwards will repay the unions for political support is a looming question.

The problem with politics and education is the possibility of newly elected officials interfering with policies that have been adopted by past administrations. The state’s first attempt to evaluate teachers better, for example, was diluted by union-supported Gov. Edwin Edwards when he defeated former Gov. Roemer in 1991. Teachers unions were so angry with Roemer that they helped drive him from office.

Perhaps with Roemer’s history in mind, Jindal waited until his second term to tackle education reform. But his national political ambitions and anti-tax pledge led to a dark period for higher education right away. The budget slashing that colleges and universities have suffered in the past eight years has left them so crippled that it will take more years than the present Gov. Edwards likely has in office to heal them. Edwards has said he favors stabilizing funding for higher education, which would be a step forward in the healing process.

At the very least, Edwards has signaled that the bloodletting will stop. In the Jindal years, higher education budgets were cut mid-year, year after year, leaving budget officers without enough funding to meet commitments in salaries and other necessities. As result, recruiting efforts for qualified faculty suffered, layoffs became common and some programs were eliminated. Stabilizing annual budgets at even present levels would be an improvement.

Jindal also tried to raid the elementary and secondary school budget to support vouchers to pay for low-income students to attend private and parochial schools. The Louisiana Constitution and the court system blocked that ploy. Financially, elementary and secondary schools survived the Jindal years fine, but policies he pushed caused strife with teachers.

In his second term, Jindal pushed legislation that toughens requirements for gaining teacher tenure. It requires more rigorous requirements for evaluating teachers, and any teacher deemed “ineffective” could be fired.

Breaking teachers unions’ ability to shield bad teachers was long overdue, but the law angered teachers. Their anger continues to play a large role in teacher resistance to the new Common Core academic standards that are designed to improve student learning.

Already under great stress because of new accountability rules, it’s no wonder that the Common Core standards adopted by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) stoked more distress. Higher standards mean more work for teachers who must learn new teaching strategies in core subjects such as English and math, at the same time they’re being pressured to increase test scores. The standards are intended to shift teaching methods from rote exercises and memorization to critical thinking, another long-overdue reform.

Aware that test scores decreased in other states during the implementation of Common Core, teacher resistance to higher standards grew. Facing the possibility of losing their positions if students didn’t perform well on Common Core aligned standardized tests, the added stress led to an alliance between many educators and right wing activists who translate the word “common” to federalization.

Jindal sided with conservatives, even though it meant abandoning his prior support for Common Core. His power plays to derail the standards and gain national publicity failed to produce traction for his presidential ambitions, but the rancor led the previously pro-Common Core Legislature to pass compromise legislation in 2015 to review the standards.

What happens to the standards that are under review now will be Edwards’ greatest test in the education sector. He has the authority to reject the reviewed standards approved by BESE. He has criticized Common Core in the past, so it’s possible that he’ll veto standards that are similar to Common Core.

It is also possible that he could try to replace state Superintendent John White, a strong Common Core supporter. White deflected all of Jindal’s politically motivated attempts to squash Common Core. As a consequence, he’s a much-hated target for anti-reformists.

But an attempt to punish White for standing up for higher academic standards may prove more dangerous than it’s worth. Even though red-state voters put Edwards in office, they also elected strongly pro-Common Core BESE members. Those elections imply that the majority of voters don’t share his anti-Common Core stance. An all-out fight with White’s supporters on BESE would likely fail.

Edwards should keep in mind that he’s a Democrat in a Republican-favored state. The anti-Vitter, anti-Jindal sentiment that put him in office won’t be active in the next election. If he wants to be a two-term governor, he’d be wise to let BESE deal with Common Core and other education matters. The political consequences of hotheaded controversies tend to weaken over time, and reactionary teachers union support could be a detriment the next time around.

 

 

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