- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:


Jan. 25

The Courier on the Orleans Public Defenders Office:

A court case in New Orleans pits the ACLU against the Orleans Public Defenders Office.

But the issue underlying the case is one that could affect thousands of Louisiana residents.

The Public Defenders Office in New Orleans, citing a lack of money, has refused to take on new felony cases in which the defendants could face long prison terms.

The ACLU sued, arguing that the office has a legal requirement to supply lawyers for any defendant who cannot afford an attorney - a basic constitutional right.

The office in New Orleans has lawyers, but those lawyers already handle an average of 300 felony cases a year. The American Bar Association recommends 150 as a maximum.

Obviously, the more cases each lawyer is assigned, the less time he or she can devote to any one case.

The fact that each defendant is constitutionally entitled to a defense is a compelling one, but what can a public office do if it doesn’t have the money to hire more lawyers.

Ideally, the case in New Orleans will bring attention to the actual problem - that the public defenders’ offices across the state are facing critical fiscal problems that threaten the rights of defendants.

The problem isn’t limited to New Orleans. The office that serves Acadia, Lafayette and Vermillion parishes has announced it will not take on additional misdemeanor or drug cases.

And our local offices are at risk, though that risk does not appear immediate.

“Being realistic, if state funding doesn’t change and local funding doesn’t change, it’s conceivable in two years” (that the Lafourche office could face a similar crisis), said Lafourche’s chief public defender, Mark Plaisance.

Part of the problem is that the money for the offices comes from the state and from local fines and court costs. Those revenue sources are not stable. Plus, the $45 charge on traffic and criminal defendants who are found guilty could revert back to $35 in June if the $10 additional fee isn’t extended by state lawmakers

Criminal defendants might not be the top political priority in the state. But the justice part of our justice system requires that each defendant receive a fair trial.

Unfortunately, a large number of our state’s criminal defendants are indigent, meaning that the public has to supply a lawyer if there can be a fair trial.

That simply cannot happen without adequate defense. And an adequate defense cannot be guaranteed without an adequate supply of money to our public defenders’ offices.

This much is clear: What we are doing simply isn’t working. The money that we are devoting to public defenders isn’t sufficient and it could decrease without legislative action.

In New Orleans, the situation is at a crisis level.

Let’s hope that the current court case will spur our lawmakers to action before the problem that affects the rest of the state rises to the same dire level.




Feb. 2

The Advocate on the Louisiana governor and the state board of education:

If you have been triumphantly elected governor of Louisiana with 56 percent of the vote, you can do almost anything, right? Not exactly.

You have to have the votes.

While many are aware of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ need to find common ground with the Republican-led Legislature, there’s another body where the governor’s word is not law, 56 percent or not.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sets policy for schools from kindergarten through high school. Eight of its members are elected, and three are appointed by Edwards.

And it is BESE that picks the state superintendent of education, not the governor.

“I have no intention of allowing John White, who isn’t qualified to be a middle school principal, to remain as superintendent,” Edwards said in June.

Now, the governor has had to backtrack on White’s tenure because seven of eight elected BESE members are not eager to fire their still-new superintendent.

Philosophically, they are from different camps of education policy. White is more supportive of charter schools, independent of local school boards; Edwards is an advocate for the school boards and has sought to restrict charters in the state. White has carried out the policies of former Gov. Bobby Jindal on vouchers for private and parochial schools; Edwards is skeptical of vouchers.

The two men clashed often, White on the same side as the Jindal-led majority that ran roughshod over Edwards and teacher unions and traditional school boards in legislative battles during the past few years. The two men would not be human if they didn’t have some hard feelings over the past.

How do they get together?

First of all, most issues before BESE aren’t clearly ideological. They tend to be practical, and the pragmatic approach Edwards promises as governor is probably going to go a long way with BESE members, elected or appointed. By the way, we think Edwards’ three appointments on the board - particularly the highly regarded Doris Voitier of St. Bernard Parish schools - will be responsible and pragmatic voices there.

Further, the charter vs. traditional split is one that could usefully be dialed back in terms of heat.

While we think charters are a valuable addition to the education landscape, increasingly in Baton Rouge and Lafayette as well as New Orleans, it is important not to overstate the importance of battles over governance structures. A strong principal with professional teachers demonstrating performance in the classroom is a good thing, whether in a charter or a traditional system; the vast majority of Louisiana students are in traditional schools, and BESE members of all stripes - not to mention Edwards and White - ought to be willing to work together to support them.

Finally, the political landscape that Edwards so dominated last fall was not really fashioned by debates on educational policy. Nor did White, who clashed bitterly with Jindal over the Common Core academic standards, end up as a mere political holdover from the last administration. Edwards himself voted for a Common Core compromise fashioned in large part by White last year.

All this suggests that if two smart and effective leaders approach this relationship without rancor - or at least without excessive rancor - there should not be a feud between the governor’s office and the state Department of Education.




Jan. 28

The Lakes Charles American Press on higher education in Louisiana:

Louisiana is no stranger to experiencing financial challenges, and some are saying the problem is made worse because the state has too many colleges.

Higher education has seen year after year of cuts, prompting the suggestion that some universities either be merged or closed. But that idea has failed to gain traction in the Legislature in the past and likely won’t get far now.

The Advocate recently reported that Louisiana has 14 publicly funded four-year schools. That’s two more than Florida, even though that state has four times the people that Louisiana does.

Because more colleges are spread out statewide, that means they have fewer students. Only four Louisiana universities have 10,000 students or more, while another four have less than 5,000 students. McNeese State University has just over 8,100 students, while Sowela Technical Community College has 3,411 students.

Despite this information, state lawmakers have shied away from merging universities or closing them outright. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed in 2011 for a merger between Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans.

The idea, which died in the Legislature, stirred up controversy because Southern is a historically black college, while UNO has mostly white students.

There are three public universities in the mere 30-mile drive from Monroe to Grambling in Northeast Louisiana - University of Louisiana at Monroe, Louisiana Tech University and Grambling University.

The Advocate reported that the presidents at those three universities earn nearly $1 million altogether, nearly two times what Louisiana State University pays its president annually. At the same time the LSU president oversees more students than those three schools combined.

While Louisiana hasn’t really considered the issue of merging schools, other states that have faced financial woes have. The University System of Georgia in 2013 approved going from eight schools to four, with two more being merged since then.

But officials, including state Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo, said that closing colleges won’t bring instant money to Louisiana. That’s because some schools are still paying money owed on certain buildings.

While it may not be a popular idea among state lawmakers, or supporters of a particular university, they should at least consider the concept of merging schools to try and make campuses more efficient and save the state money. After all, Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed $131 million in cuts to higher education if state lawmakers don’t agree to tax increases.

However, with Louisiana’s track record, it appears it won’t hear the idea of merging colleges anytime soon.



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