Jindal finds BESE ally for change

Louisiana’s top school board has become a reliable ally of Gov. Bobby Jindal and his education overhaul plans.

“I think they are tremendously supportive of reform, which does align with what Jindal has presented in his agenda,” said Brigitte Nieland, who tracks public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

In January, a newly elected state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, gave the governor more than enough votes to make John White state superintendent of education, which ended an eight-month stalemate.

Panel members then sided with Jindal when he asked for a freeze in levels of state aid to public schools, the fourth consecutive year for such a move.

And they have gladly gone along with the implementation of sweeping changes in public schools that the governor got through the Legislature, including Louisiana’s expanded voucher program, tougher rules for teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure and plans to overhaul the state’s pre-kindergarten system.

“I would agree that they are following what the governor wants,” said Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Education and an opponent of most of the Jindal and BESE-backed public school changes.

In a break with tradition, the governor got heavily involved in BESE races in 2011 in advance of presenting his public school overhaul package to the Legislature in 2012.

He said the effort was needed as part of his bid to improve public schools, 44 percent of which had just been rated D or F by the state Department of Education.

BESE, which oversees public schools statewide, has 11 members.

The governor names three: Penny Dastugue, of Mandeville; John Bennett, of Port Allen; and Connie Bradford, of Ruston.

Five of six candidates backed by Jindal won in the primary or general elections.

A sixth member, Kira Orange Jones, of New Orleans, was not publicly backed by the Republican governor, but she too is considered a Jindal ally.

Others generally aligned with the governor’s public school priorities are Walter Lee, of Mansfield; Holly Boffy, of Youngsville; Chas Roemer, of Baton Rouge; Jim Garvey, a Metairie lawyer; and Jim Guillot, of Ruston.

Two others have lined up against some of the governor’s high-profile education priorities — Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, and Lottie Beebe, of Breaux Bridge.

In one of its first votes of 2012, the board voted 9-1 with one abstention for John White, who was Jindal’s longtime pick to become state superintendent of education.

The governor’s earlier inability to get at least eight votes for White helped spark his involvement in BESE races.

Now White is expected to get a positive evaluation in January when he goes through his first formal evaluation from the panel.

And throughout the year White, who is Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, generally enjoyed lopsided BESE support — usually 9-2 — on his plans for implementing key school policies.

That list includes rules for voucher schools; new regulations for private schools to qualify for state tax dollars, and Louisiana’s new course choice program, which will allow public school students to take classes from online firms, private businesses and colleges.

On the 9-2 votes, the two voting in opposition are almost always Beebe and Hill.

In the first key vote of the year — White for superintendent — Beebe voted “no” and Hill abstained.

In July, BESE approved rules for voucher schools 9-2 with Beebe and Hill dissenting.

In October, the panel approved new rules for private and parochial schools to qualify for state aid 9-2 with Hill and Beebe the lone dissenters.

In December, a committee of the board voted 8-2 to go ahead with the course choice program even after 19th District Judge Tim Kelley struck down the funding mechanism.

Hill and Beebe voted “no” on the issue.

The views of Beebe, who was backed by the LAE, are not surprising.

Those of Hill, who was backed last year by LABI and thought to generally be aligned with pro-Jindal forces, are surprising.

“She has learned and she has listened,” Haynes said of Hill.

Nieland said Hill, by abstaining on White’s hiring, showed she was not aligned with education reform efforts and has continued that stance with votes against “school choice.”

“Many of her votes have been very disappointing,” she said.

Hill could not be reached for comment.

In an email response to questions, Beebe said White’s qualifications for the job “remain questionable” and that Jindal has run roughshod through the Legislature to enact his public school changes.

“This is the worst kind of Louisiana politics,” Beebe wrote. “Jindal is less Ronald Reagan and more Huey Long.”

All three BESE leaders picked for 2013 are Jindal allies, including incoming BESE President Roemer.