By Sheridan Wall and Charlotte Bellotte
BATON ROUGE–Gov. John Bel Edwards placed K-12 education near the top of his priorities in his 2015 campaign, and he has emphasized his support for teacher pay raises in this year’s re-election bid.
But given opposition in the Legislature, Edwards has not reversed controversial Jindal-era education policies that he routinely opposed as a state representative.
Back then, Edwards voted against measures to amend the school voucher program, base teacher evaluations in part on student achievement, make it tougher for teachers to get tenure and limit benefits for teachers who are rehired after they retired.
Rep. Stephen Carter, R-Baton Rouge, the former chairman of the House Education Committee, said that when Republican Bobby Jindal was governor, Edwards “argued against some of the things we were trying to do.”
“John Bel was on the committee, and he was not for them,” said Carter, who sponsored some of the bills. Carter said that teacher unions “backed him heavily” when Edwards ran for governor saying he would undo some of the changes.
But Edwards’ main success in this area has been to reduce the impact of students’ standardized test scores on teacher evaluations, something that the pro-Jindal camp in the Legislature did not oppose.
Edwards’ lack of headway on K-12 initiatives also has been due to the budget crises that dominated his first three years as governor, aides say.
“The biggest obstacle is the same obstacle that he’s had in other cases besides education,” said Edwards’ senior policy advisor Donald Songy. “He came into office with a $2 billion shortfall, and he’s had to fight through that. And in that process, by the way, he’s been able to keep K-12 funding levels.”
Erin Bendily, who was Jindal’s education policy adviser and now is an assistant superintendent at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said as a newly elected governor, “you go into that first legislative session wanting to deliver on your campaign promises and wanting to do a lot.”
But Edwards “came in and basically hit a brick wall,” she said. “So, from the get-go, you kind of had that divide between the Legislature — in particular the House — and the governor.”
Edwards also has run into issues working with state Education Superintendent John White, who works for BESE was appointed by Jindal’s administration. “He and John White have had their differences,” Rep. Carter said. “Also, he went on the radio when he ran and said he was going to unload John White. Well, he doesn’t control John White. BESE does.”
But Edwards has prevented further changes on issues like teacher accountability and school choice, Carter said.
Edwards has proposed increasing pay for public school teachers by $1,000 and for support workers by $500. On average, teachers in Louisiana earn $49,244 a year, or roughly $1,700 less than the Southern regional average.
Despite initial hesitation by some Republicans, Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, included a $104 million increase in his proposed 2020 budget to cover the possible cost.
Edwards’ wife Donna—a teacher and union member—has been by his side to champion the teacher pay plan, and the teacher unions continue to support him.
“Make no mistake – the pay goes to the adults, but the investment is in our children,” Edwards said in his 2019 State of the State address on April 8.
“We have teachers preparing our children for the future while struggling to provide for their own, Edwards added. “They are frustrated, and they have every right to be.”
Teachers consider the pay raise a step in the right direction, even though they wish it could be larger.
“We don’t go to work every day for the money, obviously,” Ronda Matthews, a technical education advisor for the Ascension Parish School Board, said. “However, we think a raise is coming, but we haven’t seen one yet. And if it’s $1,000 or whatever, it seems like that’s not what most teachers would like to see happen.”
Edwards also will have to deal with an $8.8 million federal grant for early childhood education that is running out this year. Failing to put forth a plan to replace those dollars would mean a cut in services for over 3,000 low-income families.
Edwards did not specifically replace the money in his budget proposal, and White has described that as a major failure.
Parents and teachers also have voiced concerns about other education issues, including standardized testing and oversized classrooms, according to Gretchen Kropp, a substitute teacher at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, a French-immersion public charter school in New Orleans.
Kropp thinks the negative press about Louisiana’s lack of quality education and low national rankings make it difficult to determine whether or not the state is improving.
“I really don’t know if progress is being made,” Kropp said. “Do I think that we’re moving forward? I don’t know how to answer that because I’m not 100 percent sure. But it does seem like there’s still so much to work on.”