State School Board Races Dominate Louisiana Elections

 One harsh TV ad now airing in Louisiana features a popsicle stick puppet in the likeness of Dale Bayard, a Republican who is up for reelection to the state board of education. Bayard "is the reason our schools are broken," a child's voice declares in the ad. "And the New Orleans liberals? Dale Bayard always votes with them."

Bayard's race is one of seven contested races for a spot on the statewide Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The positions are part-time and unpaid, but the unusually fierce and well-financed campaigns for them, ahead of elections Saturday (October 22), have overshadowed all of Louisiana's off-year elections , including its race for governor.

Part of the reason why is because Louisiana is at the national forefront of controversial changes in education, most notably the movement to use charter schools. New Orleans, where a majority of public schools have been converted over to the charter model, is seen as a national laboratory for the independent schools, which are exempt from many of the laws governing traditional public schools.

The ad attacking Bayard was funded by the Alliance for Better Classrooms, a political action committee backed by Louisiana construction magnate Lane Grigsby . According to state campaign finance data, the group has raised more than $300,000 in support of candidates who favor changing or doing away with teacher tenure laws, as well as increasing the number of charter schools in the state.

"We wanted to find people that weren't beholden to teachers unions and the local school board," says the group's spokesman, Jay Connaughton.

Meanwhile, two teachers unions and the state's school board association are among several groups that have banded together as the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education. The coalition is calling for more financial support for education and slowed implementation of recent changes, such as a statewide report card that gives letter grades to each school and a new teacher evaluation system that ties half of a teacher's review to student performance.

The coalition is backing a mix of incumbents and challengers in each of the races. "We're in a battle to save public education," says Joyce Haynes, president of the largest union in the state, the Louisiana Association of Education. Her union and its political action committee have spent more than $20,000 supporting candidates backed by the coalition.

But the union's spending is dwarfed by that of the Alliance for Better Classrooms and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which has poured at least a quarter of a million dollars into candidate coffers through its four political action committees.

The school board races are not breaking along typical party lines. The business groups are supporting some Democrats, including Kira Orange Jones, the executive director of Teach for America's Greater New Orleans operations. The union-backed coalition is supporting some Republicans, such as Bayard.

The business-backed candidates have dramatically outraised their opponents in nearly every race. Kira Orange Jones, the top fundraiser so far, collected $40,000 from LABI's four PACs — the maximum allowable under state law — and more than $200,000 overall.

LABI says it has made the elections its top political priority. "Everything is at stake," says Brigitte Nieland, the organization's director of education. "Public education is our number one business issue."

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal also has gotten in the mix. The Republican's campaign committee has donated the maximum allowable amount so far to five candidates, including one Democrat. The governor is considered to have a clear path to reelection this year, which some say explains why the school board races have drawn more attention.

In addition to overseeing all of the state's schools, the education board has the power to appoint the state's superintendent of education. Many see Jindal's involvement in the race as an attempt to garner more support for John White , his preferred candidate for that position. Currently, White is the superintendent of the state's Recovery School District, which is composed mostly of underperforming schools in New Orleans.

That's exactly the problem, say those opposed to the candidates backed by the governor.

"There's a concerted effort by Bobby Jindal to gain total control of the education system," says Don Whittinghill, a spokesman for the Louisiana School Boards Association, which is part of the coalition. "The BESE elections have really become a proxy for the statewide approval of the Jindal education agenda." 

Tags: Education