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After 'Louisiana Hayride,' Some Tough Realities

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In 1983, Louisiana's newly re-elected Governor, Edwin W. Edwards, promised to "let the good times roll." And, the joke now goes, the good times did just that: They rolled away.

More than anyone, Mr. Edwards, with his flashy style and his love for high-stakes gambling, came to represent the free-and-easy days of the "Louisiana Hayride"--a decade-long pleasure trip fueled by the state's booming oil and gas industries.

Now, the disastrous collapse of that boom--which has cost Louisiana more than 140,000 jobs since 1981--has left the state staggering through a painful financial crisis.

And Governor Edwards, having weathered two trials on corruption charges, was defeated last November in his bid for a third term.

The end of the "hayride" has prompted growing demands for reform in a state long known for its tolerance of political patronage, perquisites, and corruption.

This change in climate has also refocused critical attention on Louisiana's schools, say educators, business leaders, and political observers.

Change Seen a Necessity

The need for economic development has created a rare consensus that Louisiana must spend more money to improve its poor academic track record--despite a grim fiscal outlook. Most political leaders ac4knowledge that the financial situation is desperate.

Over the past three years, Louisiana has accumulated a deficit now estimated to be in excess of $750 million--about 11 percent of its total annual budget. It now has one of the lowest credit ratings of any state.

Governor-elect Buddy Roemer, seeking to prevent the state from running out of money before he takes office March 14, has urged Mr. Edwards to adopt a number of emergency measures. But so far, the outgoing Governor has been reluctant to act on most of those proposals.

Yet even as Mr. Roemer prepares a draconian program of budget cuts to be implemented the moment he takes office, the Governor-elect is also talking about major funding in8creases for education--including a teacher-salary plan that goes far beyond anything considered in the state before.

"Our number-one priority is education," said Jeff Cowart, a spokesman for Mr. Roemer.

A System in Trouble

Few dispute that the state's school system is in deep trouble.

Unlike most Southern states, Louisiana has lost educational ground in recent years, despite a modest reform package developed by the Edwards administration and adopted by the legislature in 1984.

Although that program provided pay raises for teachers, the state's average teacher salary now ranks 48th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia--down from 28th six years ago.

During the same period, spending per pupil fell from 30th to 37th nationally, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Academic performance has also been disappointing. Last year, the federal department reported that Louisiana had the highest dropout rate in the nation.

And more than half of all its public-college freshmen are enrolled in remedial programs, according to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a leading lobby.

'Politicization Is Ingrained'

The business group argues that the school system is in the grip of entrenched "special interests," such as the state's teachers' unions and their political allies.

"The politicization in the schools is ingrained all the way down the line," said Jackie Ducote, the labi's executive vice president. "The system as it now exists is absolutely resistant to change."

In recent years, Mr. Ducote's organization has proposed a number of sweeping reform measures--such as a tuition-voucher program--that have failed to garner serious support in the legislature.

Representatives of the teachers' unions, meanwhile, say they are willing to support some reforms, even in the sensitive area of incentive-based pay. But they are urging a cautious approach to such efforts.

"We want to make sure we avoid the kinds of mistakes that were made in other states that acted out of political expediency instead of educational merit," said Virginia Budd, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

"We want to be able to pick and choose some of the better components for our state," she said.

Relations between Mr. Roemer and the two major teachers' unions have been decidedly cool. Both unions had endorsed a rival candidate in the gubernatorial race, and Mr. Roemer passed over Ms. Budd and other union leaders when he formed a task force to advise him on education issues.

'The Money Is There'

Mr. Roemer, a conservative Democrat who currently represents the upcountry hill region around Shreveport in the U.S. House, ran for governor on a platform that called for deep cuts in the state bureaucracy. During his campaign, he made a symbolic proposal to "brick up" the top three floors of the office building in Baton Rouge that houses the state education department.

Mr. Roemer has also spoken highly of the sweeping education-reform package adopted in 1984 by the South Carolina legislature. After his election, he met with Richard Riley, that state's former governor and a champion of its reform program, to discuss those efforts.

To pay for their plan, South Carolina lawmakers approved a 1-cent sales tax earmarked for education. While Mr. Roemer also advocates increased school spending in Louisiana, he contends that much of the needed money can be raised by trimming waste in other parts of the state budget.

"Our theory is that the money is already there to do what has to be done," Mr. Cowart of the Governor's office said. "It just isn't allocated properly."

As a more distant goal, Mr. Roemer has set the ambitious target of raising teacher salaries to the national average. But he has not offered a timetable for doing so.

"We have to get on a sound financial footing before we move forward," Mr. Cowart said.

Symbolic Steps

Mr. Roemer has taken a number of highly publicized steps to demonstrate his determination to change the way the state government does business.

In November, he asked David A. Stockman, the controversial former director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, and former U.S. Representative James Jones of Oklahoma, who chaired the House Budget Committee, to review the state's budget and identify wasteful spending.

In December, he ran classified advertisements in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal seeking to recruit applicants for top state jobs that have long been considered patronage plums.

One of the most important posts waiting to be filled is that of the state superintendent of education. In 1986, Louisiana voters approved a ballot measure that changed the office from an elected to an appointed one.

The new superintendent will be selected by the state's board of elementary and secondary education. Mr. Roemer will have the opportunity to name three new members to that board soon after he takes office.

Power Held by Board

While Mr. Roemer talks of school reform, much of the power to bring about change now rests with the state board. Besides gaining the power to select the superintendent, the board has also acquired considerable authority over education spending.

That responsibility, which was granted by voters in a 1986 ballot measure, allows the panel to set the specific funding levels that go into the state's finance formula each year.

Once approved by lawmakers, that level can be cut only with the approval of the Governor and two-thirds of the legislature.

Political observers say the board's new authority has given it considerable leverage in its long-running power contests with the legislature, the Governor, and the state superintendent.

"The board is clearly in the driver's seat now," said Mark Drennen,president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonpartisan group based in Baton Rouge.

Mr. Drennen said he was somewhat skeptical, however, about the possibility of a new education-reform drive in Louisiana, given the current fiscal realities.

"It cannot be done without a tax increase, and I don't see where the support is for that right now," he said.

Edward Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans, voiced similar skepticism about Mr. Roemer's ability to bring about political change.

"He has said things have to change," Mr. Renwick said. "But whether the people and the legislature will go along with him or not I don't know. It's still way too early to tell."

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