(The Center Square) – School choice, increased accountability for low-performing schools, a laser focus on college and career readiness, and addressing a loss of federal COVID funding are expected to be top priorities for a new conservative majority on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“I think going forward you’re probably going to have a … supermajority of the board that’s looking for meaningful change,” Erin Bendily, vice president for policy and strategy at the Pelican Institute, told The Center Square. “You have a lot more experienced and seasoned leaders coming onto the board right now.”
Recent appointments by Gov. Jeff Landry and results from the 2023 elections have shifted the board overseeing the state’s education system from one that has split 6-5 toward liberal policies to a solidly conservative perspective.
The turnover will bring eight new members to the 11-member board, including former Republican House Education Committee Chairman Lance Harris elected to District 5, attorney Stacey Melerine elected to District 4, former Republican state Rep. Paul Hollis elected to District 1, and Republican farmer Kevin Berkin elected to District 7. Charter school principal of the year semifinalist Sharon Latten Clark was elected unopposed to represent District 2.
Landry appointed former Republican Sen. Conrad Appel, former Republican state Rep. Simone Champagne, and school improvement consultant Judy Armstrong to the board last week. Landry also set the tone for the new board by nixing a controversial proposal to create an alternative pathway to graduation that many suggested would hamper accountability and hurt students who need help the most.
The board on Tuesday elected District 6 member Ronnie Morris as president, Harris as vice president, and Melerine as secretary-treasurer.
“Mr. Morris, Mr. Harris, and Mrs. Melerine are student-first leaders who appreciate the type of bold action necessary to improve academic outcomes,” state Superintendent Cade Brumley wrote in a statement. “Louisiana is poised to accelerate and I’m confident out new board will seize this opportunity.”
Bendily noted that many of the incoming board members “have been strong advocates for children and strong champions for change and progress” in the Legislature, with Harris among lawmakers last session who sponsored legislation to create Education Savings Accounts and expand school choice.
“I expect this board to play an active role in getting an ESA program passed this year and implemented,” she said. ESAs allow parents to use their child’s state education funding at private schools or alternatives to the public school system.
Michael Faulk, executive director for the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, echoed Bendily’s perspective. LASS opposed ESA legislation in 2023, over concerns ranging from how service providers are vetted, to oversight of state funds.
“Our concern is accountability and services being provided by reputable providers,” he told The Center Square. “We understand choice is coming about.”
There will also likely be an increased focus on improvements at the state’s 352 low-performing schools, aimed at meeting a new definition of college or career readiness recently adopted by both the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Regents, Bendily said.
The Pelican Institute has repeatedly highlighted how the state’s accountability system rates education a B overall, despite just 33% of students performing at proficient levels in core subjects.
“I think there will be a greater expectation that continued low school performance won’t be tolerated,” she said. “I think this board coming in is going to say it’s unacceptable our reading and math scores are so low.”
“We believe there’s going to be a focus to change … high school accountability,” Faulk agreed.
Other top issues, Faulk said, will likely revolve around the expiration of federal COVID relief for schools, which funded “a lot of programs initiated that you will not have funding for” in the coming years. Louisiana received about $4 billion in federal school relief funds during the pandemic.
Faulk noted that the state board of education recommends a funding formula to the Legislature annually that lawmakers can either approve or reject.