As its members sift through election returns, Louisiana’s education establishment should become increasingly nervous as reform forces are favored to exercise considerable power on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over the next four years.
Already, reform forces have captured a BESE majority. Combined with the three gubernatorial appointees of freshly-reelected Gov. Bobby Jindal
, who will ensure on his watch that they will align with the reform efforts, three members elected last weekend, incumbent Jim Garvey and newcomers Jay Guillot and Holly Boffy comprise six of the eleven members. Reform forces suffered a setback when incumbent Democrat Glenny Lee Buquet got defeated by Republican establishmentarian candidate Lottie Beebe.
Add to the mix the only candidate who ran unopposed, Walter Lee, who in the past aligned with the establishment but has hinted that blowing winds might make him less reliably so, and the lineup looks 6-2 favoring reform. But in the three undecided contests, odds favor in each candidates who express mild to wild enthusiasm for reform.
In District 6, incumbent Republican Chas Roemer led the field with 44 percent, forced into a runoff by Democrat retired Ascension Parish school superintendent Donald Songy at 28 percent, who nudged out Republican educator Beth Meyers at 26 percent. Subsequently, Meyers endorsed Songy.
This should not surprise, as during the campaign Meyers sounded much closer to the blueblood establishmentarian Songy than to Roemer, perhaps BESE’s most willing member to think outside of the box that enfranchised inferior education in the state and to be vocal about it. But what should have surprised the establishment was Meyer nearly aced Songy out of the runoff, despite its throwing support behind him through its interest group
Reflecting on the returns, Songy should have garnered the support of the vast number of those opposed to Roemer, but the fact he nearly got pushed aside by a candidate far less visible than he whose only real difference was she ran as a Republican thereby shows it was the label that made the difference. That is, if there was real enthusiasm for an establishment candidate, partisanship would not have mattered. Since it did, this means votes for Meyers came from those not thrilled with Roemer but who did not want to vote for a Democrat. With her now aside, these voters must decide whether their lukewarm-or-less approval of Roemer is compelling enough to vote for a Democrat, in a district where registrations are about even between the two major parties.
The election calendar seems to favor neither candidate. On Nov. 19, in many parts of the district only this contest and a constitutional amendment will be on the ballot as far as state offices go, inviting minimal turnout. The demographic composition of those favoring reform suggests they are more likely to turn out than those favoring the establishment in this kind of environment, but because special interests such as teachers unions will rally their members regardless, the majority of whom favor of the establishment of which they are part, the effect probably nets out.
But the fact that Roemer carried such a big lead coming out of the general election shows that there should be enough Meyers voters who put partisanship before feelings about Roemer or his agenda to give him the win. In other words, given that reduced turnout appears to create a similar pool of voters as in the October election, Roemer needs to win just a quarter of Meyers voters to assure himself of another term. Since party identification apparently mattered so decisively in the case of long-serving reformer Buquet’s defeat, Roemer achieving this seems extremely likely.
The most nebulous race concerns District 8, the only one without an incumbent, where the establishment candidate finished last just behind the candidate considered the most reliable for reformers. That leaves Democrat social worker Carolyn Hill
, who hints at a reform agenda and who led the field, matched against speech professional Jim Guillory, a former Avoyelles Parish School Board member who ran with no party label and hints at an establishment agenda.
Guillory made the runoff despite a modicum of spending, and probably for one reason only: in a district that is about 60 percent black and two-thirds Democrat registered voters, he was the only non-black and non-Democrat in the contest. As such, Hill should be favored even as she might end up only a marginal supporter of an ambitious reform agenda on BESE. Here, this represents more of a blown chance for the establishment for a solid supporter than a win for stark reform.
So, electoral math suggests when the dust settles that reliable supporters of reform with Roemer will have seven seats. They alone would ensure the appointment of John White, current Recovery School District head, as state superintendent as favored by Jindal, because Lee has stated he would vote for White if needed as an eighth vote as it takes that many to appoint. White is considered anathema to the establishment, where, as a former teacher and school district administrator, he can fend off charges often levied against some reformers (like Roemer, who is a businessman) that his having not been in the trenches of education makes him illegitimate to make policy concerning education. With a solid record of achievement in reform, White would shake up the power and privilege enjoyed by the establishment.
The election of Jones and/or Hill instead of Roemer still might produce this result (White also is a Teach for America alumnus), but any combination makes the chances of reform better, and the more the likelier for truly far-reaching changes. Jones may be less reliable on reform matters and Hill even more, but having more reform sympathizers to any degree makes it easier to get winning reform coalitions on a case-by-case basis. It is not unlikely that reformers could end up with a core of seven members always voting for pedestrian reform, and a couple of others joining them on at least some such issues. The seven may also all stick together for more dramatic reform. And Lee’s migration may continue so that newcomer Beebe may end up the only consistent vote against it.
This is a nightmare scenario for the establishment, so we can expect all the stops pulled out to prevent, at the very least, victory by Roemer and/or Jones. But with a guaranteed majority even if every result went against the way of reform in November, at the very least dilution of reform now seems very unlikely in the near term.
by Jeffrey Sadow, Ph.D. Visit his daily blog, Between the Lines
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