Political Horizons: Civility wins the argument

It is rare when rank-and-file citizens, in this case public school counselors and librarians, force a government body to do an about face.

However, that is just what happened last week when Louisiana’s top school board suddenly dropped plans to change the rules that govern both groups.

The turnaround followed hours of polite, but impassioned, criticism plus weeks of organizing and letter writing by political novices.

And the complaints led state Superintendent of Education John White, who pushed the plan, to announce in midmeeting that, in the spirit of compromise, his own proposed rules change should be mostly shelved.

Just two months earlier, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, at White’s urging, approved the changes.

A bid to kill the change then failed when three voted to kill them, but seven voted to keep them.

Yet on Tuesday, all that changed.

The same board, without dissent, voted to drop the planned overhaul, which is exactly what counselors and librarians hoped for.

It even surprised Walter Lee, of Shreveport, who has been on BESE since 1991 but could not remember such a turnaround from the board that sets policies for more than 700,000 public school students.

“I was not really expecting to get it approved when I made the motion to reverse the policy,” Lee said later.

White had touted the new rules as part of a broader effort to give local school districts more control, which he said is working.

The state has long required public high schools to provide one counselor for every 450 students.

It also spelled out ratios for the required number of librarians.

Under the superintendent’s plan, school districts would have been allowed to get around those staffing requirements if they found other, qualified people or ways to do the job.

Counselors protested by arguing that such a change would hurt students, especially those who rely on one-on-one relationships with counselors for everything from personal problems to career plans.

They said it would be a mistake, and dangerous, to assume that others could handle the duties of a trained counselor, especially in dealing with students with emotional troubles.

After BESE’s vote in January opponents launched a campaign to reverse the move.

Critics said removing the required staffing rules, which they say are already lax, would pave the way for school district leaders to fire counselors in favor of football coaches and others.

BESE members were suddenly on the receiving end of a massive lobbying effort.

“We weren’t attacking them,” said Cathy Smith, a seven-year counselor at Hathaway High School in Jennings and one of the leaders of the effort.“We were trying to work with them.”

That collegiality, even amid sharply differing views, was something else that made this debate different.

At a time when political arguments often turn toxic, this one was anything but that.

Smith repeatedly praised White and others for working with critics of the plan, and for trying to fashion a compromise.

White praised the passion and professionalism shown by counselors and librarians, and joked about how many women named Cathy were embroiled in the issue.

Once BESE approved the new rules in January, it had to solicit public comments.

One is enough to put the issue back on the agenda.

Instead, 1,456 public comments rolled in, mostly letters from students.

Even so the hearing looked like a pro forma gathering where BESE would hear the criticism, approve minor tweaks and move on.

White reiterated his support at the outset.

Yet as speaker after speaker pleaded with the panel to reconsider, things started to change.

White moved down a seat at the board table to confer with Lee, who made the motion to reverse the policy.

Other private conferences ensued, and suddenly BESE voted to reverse what it had overwhelmingly approved just two months earlier.

“I was always optimistic,” Smith said afterwards.

Despite long odds, her message to colleagues was that, if counselors kept making their points, their side would prevail.

“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” Smith said.

Will Sentell covers education issues on a state level for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@thead
vocate.com.