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Louisiana Gov.-Elect Faces Education Issues

By Linda Jacobson — October 25, 2007 6 min read
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Republicans hold a healthy majority in both the House and the Senate in Mississippi, and that’s not expected to change.

The Republican, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the son of immigrants from India, avoided a runoff election by earning more than 50 percent of the vote for governor in Louisiana’s Oct. 20 primary. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco—criticized for her response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster— had announced in March that she would not run again.

While the Louisiana governor’s race is settled, voters in two other states—Kentucky and Mississippi—still have governors to elect on Nov. 6. In addition, control of one or more houses of the legislature in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia also will be decided next month, even as the 2008 presidential campaign already dominates the political debate nationally.

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School Issues Vary on States’ Ballots

As part of Mr. Jindal’s education agenda, he said he wants to continue to support the variety of education options currently available in hurricane-battered New Orleans, including numerous charter schools, the state-run Recovery School District, and the handful of schools operated by the Orleans Parish school board. The reform effort, he said in his campaign materials, “will provide valuable insight on how best to use the resources of the state, while allowing parents and educators to develop a community model that benefits all families.”

But school choice—including vouchers and private tuition tax credits—has been an issue statewide.

In July, Gov. Blanco vetoed legislation that would have allowed Louisianians to deduct from their income taxes a portion of the tuition costs for secular or religious private schools. Education groups characterized the bill as instituting “back-door vouchers.” Observers have said they expect similar legislation to quickly re-emerge.

Vouchers for New Orleans?

“It appears that [Mr. Jindal] seems to have a choice agenda,” said Nolton Senegal, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, which has opposed vouchers. “Clearly, he’s not going to be the education governor that Kathleen Blanco was.”

Mr. Jindal, who takes office in January, has hinted that he might support vouchers for New Orleans, in particular, because of its “unique and enormous” needs. “We cannot sentence any child to a poor education,” he said during the campaign, “just because they happen to live within a certain geographic boundary.”

During the campaign, Mr. Jindal also suggested that “intelligent design”—a controversial explanation of life’s origins that has been put forth as an alternative to the theory of evolution—might belong in the state’s curriculum. He also emphasized remedial programs for struggling students, said he wants to expand students’ access to career- training programs and dual-credit courses, and talked about providing incentives and “upward mobility” for teachers.

He has praised the Teacher Advancement Program, which is used in 13 states and which involves peer evaluation and monitoring student performance over time as a way to reward teachers for improving achievement. (“Teacher-Pay Incentives Popular But Unproven,” Sept. 27, 2006.)

This was Mr. Jindal’s second run for the governorship. He was defeated by Ms. Blanco in 2003.

Faith and Politics

In Kentucky, the candidates’ opposing views on using gambling proceeds to finance education have figured prominently in the race.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican who is trying to overcome questions of ethics raised during his tenure to win a second term, has come out strongly against an expansion of gambling to provide more money for schools. But Democratic challenger Steve Beshear, a former state attorney general and lieutenant governor, is in favor of casino gambling as a source of revenue for K-12 schools.

Mr. Beshear, who has almost a 20- point lead over the incumbent in opinion polls, is focusing heavily on expanding early-childhood education and full-day kindergarten. He would also like to see collective bargaining for teachers across the state, while Mr. Fletcher is opposed to such bargaining.

Both candidates say they are in favor of increasing teacher pay. Mr. Fletcher would like to see financial incentives used to attract math and science teachers. Mr. Beshear, however, is opposed to such differentialpay plans.

Alicia Sells, the director of government relations for the Kentucky School Boards Association, which has not endorsed a candidate, said she thinks the biggest obstacles facing Mr. Fletcher are misdemeanor charges—since dropped by prosecutors—stemming from allegations that he gave state jobs to his political supporters, and his resistance to gaming.

The governor’s race in Mississippi is illustratrating how faith and politics in the South often mix.

The Republican incumbent, Gov. Haley Barbour, is favored to win a second term over Democratic challenger John A. Eaves Jr., a well-to-do trial lawyer.

But Mr. Eaves’ campaign rhetoric sounds more like what might come from a staunch conservative. One of his campaign promises is to allow voluntary, student-led prayer into the state’s public schools. Another is to institute an academic class in “Bible literacy,” something he says he favors as a way to help students learn right from wrong.

Mr. Barbour has been trying to keep the race focused on such issues as fully funding the state’s school finance formula, pushing for teacher pay raises, and providing mentors for new middle school teachers.

Mr. Eaves’ promises haven’t stirred much debate in the education community, said Kevin F. Gilbert, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“Here in the Bible Belt, if you’re talking about prayer in schools, people aren’t going to come out against that,” he said.

Although his organization hasn’t endorsed either candidate, it is most concerned with funding, he added. “When our state doesn’t fund its share,” Mr. Gilbert said, “it makes the burden harder on our districts.”

Regional Issues

Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi all face some similar challenges, said Gale Gaines, the vice president for state services at the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

All are grappling with whether to institute performance-based-pay plans, Ms. Gaines said. All three states also are talking about expanding preschool services, and all soon will need to address educational facility needs.

On the state legislative level, party control could determine which education issues move forward next year.

In Louisiana, which holds its general election Nov. 17, Democrats are expected to keep control of the Senate. But Mr. Senegal of the Louisiana school boards’ group said Republicans—long in the minority—have been gradually picking up seats in the House.

Republicans in Virginia control both the House and the Senate, but Democrats could win a majority in the Senate, observers say, giving Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine more allies in his efforts to expand early-childhood education.

In New Jersey, the legislature is in flux, with several incumbents having lost during the June primaries. With 13 state senators retiring this year, and several Assembly members running for those open seats, turnover is expected to continue in the general election.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week

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