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Louisiana’s Governor Race Is Tight but Will Likely Not Affect the Fate of Education Reform in the State

By Kevin Mahnken | October 23, 2019

Gov. John Bel Edwards (Getty Images); Eddie Rispone (eddieforgovernor.com)

Primary voting held in Louisiana earlier this month has set the stage for a nail-biter gubernatorial race on Nov. 16, as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will face wealthy businessman Eddie Rispone. The upcoming runoff election will determine whether Rispone will give Republicans unified control over state government, which they have sought since the incumbent’s unexpected victory four years ago, or Democrats will maintain a toehold in Baton Rouge under Edwards.

But no matter the general election winner, the results have made one thing clear: The cause of education reform is likely to continue advancing in Louisiana.

In races for seven contested seats on the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE, or “Bessie” to locals), candidates favoring charter schools and private school vouchers swept six; another pro-reform figure, Ronnie Morris, secured 49 percent of the primary vote for the seventh seat, and will be favored against his opponent in the runoff. 

The resounding wins should provide a measure of job security to long-serving, reform-oriented state Superintendent of Education John White, whose eight-year tenure was thought to be in some jeopardy. Though Edwards, who was elected in 2015 with the support of the state’s teacher’s unions, has sought to oust White in the past, he will be constrained from taking that step if re-elected, as BESE has final say in the decision.

Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, predicted “a good deal of continuity” in the state’s educational leadership going forward regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican holds the reins.

“It looks like the BESE board is again going to have a solid majority of reform members … who favor vouchers, who favor school choice,” Cross said. “If Eddie Rispone gets in there as governor, he will probably like John White and keep him there. If John Bel Edwards is re-elected, he probably won’t have the votes to get rid of John White. So they’ll be at a standstill.”

Blackboard jungle

This month’s primary’s elections spring from Louisiana’s peculiar ritual of the “jungle primary.”

The event is a nonpartisan primary election pitting Democrats, Republicans and independents against one another. If any candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, he is declared the general election winner, and no second round of voting is held. Edwards had hopes of becoming the fourth incumbent governor to win the jungle primary outright and avoid a runoff in November, but his showing — 46 percent — dashed them.

His opposition was almost entirely split between two Republicans: Rispone, a construction magnate and prolific conservative donor, and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham. The two men accounted for 52 percent of all votes cast, an ominous sign for Edwards as he attempts to thread the needle toward a second term.

The Louisiana governor is among the rarest of creatures in the American political bestiary: a popular Southern Democrat. Throughout his four years in office, he has been the sole member of his party to hold a governorship in the Deep South; still more impressive, he remains fairly well-liked, earning a 47 percent approval rating in a recent survey from the polling group Morning Consult.

Many of his foes dismissed his original victory as a fluke, dubbing him an “accidental governor.” But Edwards has demonstrated canny political instincts by governing as a Blue Dog moderate, working with Republicans to shrink the state’s huge budget deficit and pass criminal justice reform that has been called “historic.” Against bracing headwinds, he even made Louisiana one of the few Southern states to expand Medicaid eligibility.

One notable area in which Edwards has been stymied, however, has been in his attempts to slow Louisiana’s expansion of school choice. Though he originally campaigned on removing Superintendent White, whose advocacy on behalf of Common Core and charter schools has made him a darling of the national education reform community, staunch opposition from BESE kept him from doing so. Still, White has been working on a month-to-month contract for nearly four years, a reflection of the controversy. 

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Edwards was elected with the energetic support of the state’s teacher’s unions, which chafed at the pro-reform policies of his predecessor, Bobby Jindal. But he often found himself boxed in by the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), which lobbies hard in the capitol for school choice and accountability.

Over one-third of the bills put forward in Edwards’s first legislative package were K-12 related, including proposed restrictions on the state’s voucher program and a ban on new for-profit charter schools; they ran into a buzzsaw of opposition in the state legislature, and most were withdrawn, leading some to wonder what reform opponents had gained from electing their chosen candidate. His education agenda the following year — including a plan to shift teacher evaluations away from relying on value-added measurements — was largely sidelined as well.

Even more than the failure to move legislation, Edwards’s inability to choose his own superintendent proved especially vexing in 2017, when White moved to submit Louisiana’s ESSA school improvement plan. Edwards initially petitioned for more time, arguing that the proposal leaned too heavily on standardized testing and letter grades to determine school quality, but BESE overruled his request.

A June report from the RAND Corporation touted the changes led by White, including an overhaul of the state’s early education system and the adoption of new, rigorous curricula in classrooms. And in spite of the defeats dealt to his education agenda over the years, teachers unions have called Edwards a “champion for public education,” citing his efforts to raise teacher salaries by $1,000 and fully fund the state’s TOPS scholarship system, which subsidizes public university tuition for eligible Louisiana students.

Academic results from the past few years of contested policymaking have been mixed. Scores on the ACT college entrance exam saw four consecutive years of improvement through 2017, only to dip last year. The percentage of students passing AP tests nearly tripled between 2008 and 2018, though that rate still ranks last in the nation. White himself has trumpeted the growing numbers of high schoolers earning professional credentials before graduation, among other achievements. 

Douglas Harris, an economics professor at Tulane University and the director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, described White’s long tenure as “pretty remarkable,” noting that he had survived scarring fights with local conservatives only to find his position threatened by a Democratic governor.

“It’s hard to describe it as anything other than a success, especially in political terms,” he said. “He was fighting years ago with Jindal on Common Core, and he has had to be extremely strategic to stay in the position and not have Republicans calling for his ouster. He’s become a national leader among state superintendents, especially those of a more reform bent.”

Harris did note that, even with a strong BESE majority behind him, White had “been around long enough that you might expect some sort of change — he may be getting tired of swimming against the stream.”

Peter Cook, a local commentator who sits on the advisory board of the state’s chapter of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform, has harshly criticized Edwards’s “losing streak” on education. Still, while emphasizing that he does not speak for DFER, Cook says he supports parts of the governor’s agenda and believes that there is room for greater cooperation in a second term.

“Outside of things like testing and charter schools, there’s a lot of common ground [Edwards] has with reformers — increasing school funding, early childhood stuff, more funding to higher education,” he said. “Those are all areas where he would have a ton of support from us, so I think he’ll probably focus on that.”

What comes next

That’s assuming Edwards is able to edge Rispone in next month’s general election, which is by no means assured. Though the governor has worked hard to cultivate the support of Louisiana’s moderate and conservative voters, the state is still one of the reddest in the land.

In addition, turnout for the second round is likely to be depressed, a product of the election being held apart from typical cycles. That dynamic is compounded in lower-level races like those for BESE seats, which are far less publicized affairs.

“Participation is low … because it’s an off-year election,” he said. “We don’t get 50 percent of people out there, and of those people, a lot of them don’t vote in BESE races because they aren’t as plugged-in on education issues. For those folks who do, they know so little about BESE that name recognition plays a huge role, so incumbents have a big advantage.”

The importance of education to the governor’s race will likely be subsumed within the broader political stakes. No less a figure than President Trump made an appearance in the race on the eve of the primary, successfully stoking Republican turnout to deny Edwards a first-round knockout. But if questions of education aren’t likely to cut through the noise between now and November, a few schooling issues will undoubtedly be affected by the voters’ choice next month.

One is the state’s $40 million school voucher program, which serves about 7,000 students annually. Edwards expressed hostility to the system long before he came into office, particularly when then-Gov. Jindal signed a statewide voucher expansion in 2012. More recently, he vowed to make changes after an investigation found that most voucher students are enrolled in underperforming private schools. The oversight process for private academies accepting the vouchers — consisting mostly of a 16-page application filled with yes-or-no questions, and no mandatory site visit — has come under particular fire. 

Rispone, who served as chairman  of the pro-voucher group Louisiana Federation for Children from 2011 to 2018, has donated a fortune to promote the program and support BESE candidates who favor it. That support has come under scrutiny in recent days, with Edwards labeling him as the “godfather” of statewide vouchers and Rispone attempting to distance himself from the policy. Under Rispone’s leadership, the LFC ran attack ads in 2016 directed against Edwards’s attempts to pare back the program.

While Edwards seeks revisions to the program, he is unlikely to campaign on the issue in the coming weeks. Tulane’s Harris said that the governor would be more likely to focus on sunnier accomplishments, like the teacher pay raise. Although his union allies had pushed for a larger bump than the $1,000 that was eventually granted, they worked with both BESE and the state legislature to help secure the win. 

“[Vouchers are] a very divisive issue, and teacher pay is not,” he said. “[Edwards] is a Democrat running in a fairly conservative state, so he’s very unlikely to use vouchers in a general election. I think he’s going to continue to tout the teacher pay raise and other increases in education spending.”

Another hot-button topic in the days to come will be the trend of affluent white communities “seceding” to form their own school districts. In the primary vote, residents of a previously unincorporated area of East Baton Rouge Parish narrowly voted to create a new municipality, St. George, that could become the state’s fifth-largest city. If its inhabitants succeed in creating their own school system, which will require approval from the state legislature, the existing district’s schools will become substantially poorer, and more black, on average.

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The University of Louisiana’s Cross observed that while Rispone might be a more vigorous champion for school reform as governor, other players — from BESE members to state lawmakers — would make many of the key decisions on education no matter who wins next month. And their policy preferences are fairly clear.

“So much of education is outside the direct control of the governor. The current governor is married to a public school teacher, and he’s definitely on the side of traditional public schools in Louisiana. But his ability to change much of that without working with the legislature is fairly limited. He’s limited by the legislature, and he’s limited by BESE. The legislature is going to be an even more Republican, reform-minded, pro-voucher body, so I imagine they’re going to continue down that path.”

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