- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ alliances with education unions and traditional public school leaders are drawing concern that Louisiana’s next governor will seek to revisit legislative battles over charter schools and the state’s voucher program.

In a sign of the strength of Edwards’ ties to the unions, the Democrat’s first speech since winning the weekend runoff election was Monday at the Louisiana Federation of Teachers convention in Lake Charles.

“I know the power and the promise of a public school education when it’s done right and when you’ve got a good partner in the governor’s office. Well, let me tell you something, come Jan. 11 you’re going to have a good partner in the governor’s office,” Edwards told the group, according to a video of the speech provided by his spokeswoman.

His wife a public school teacher, Edwards is a long-time critic of the voucher program that provides taxpayer-financed tuition to private schools. As a state lawmaker, he has unsuccessfully sought to place more restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, which are run with broad autonomy from state and local education officials.

During his campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, however, Edwards said he wouldn’t seek to shutter Louisiana’s voucher program or its widespread use of charter schools to educate students.

But he said the voucher program should only be for students in failing public schools. He also wants to prohibit the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, from starting new charter schools in higher-performing districts that have denied the charter school application.

Those positions have put him at odds with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which endorsed Vitter, and other “school choice” groups that have sought to broaden options available to students from families who can’t afford private schools.

Brigitte Nieland, who works on education issues for the association, said she was concerned that Edwards’ backing from the unions will drive some of his policy decisions and could undermine accountability and school choice programs.

“Clearly he owes the unions a lot,” Nieland said.

But she added: “He’ll be governing the entire state. He’s a smarter man than to come in and try to annihilate everything overnight.”

Regardless of Edwards’ relationship with the unions, the new governor likely would have difficulty unraveling past education policy decisions if he decided to try.

Edwards will be working a majority-GOP Legislature that has favored the voucher program, charter schools and other initiatives opposed by traditional public school groups.

Plus, seven of the eight BESE contenders that won this election cycle supported greater educational choice for children and were backed by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Edwards only has three appointees to the 11-member education board.

“We take Gov.-elect Edwards at his word when he had his supporters tell voters that an Edwards administration won’t undermine parental choice,” Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children, said in a statement.

The first dust-up may be over the future of Superintendent of Education John White.

BESE selects the superintendent, but governors have had a heavy hand in those choices. White is regularly at odds with the education unions. Edwards wants a new education chief.

“I believe we have many experienced classroom educators with the proper credentials in Louisiana, and I believe there are a number of them who would be better choices for the state going forward in terms of being state superintendent of education,” Edwards said Sunday. “I’m going to work with the BESE board, and we’re going to see how this plays out.”

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