BESE candidates debate issues at St. Charles forum

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 5, 2011



LULING – The four candidates vying for the District 2 seat on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in the Oct. 22 general election were given the opportunity Monday to express their ideas for the future of education in Louisiana during a forum at the St. Charles Parish School Board office.

Incumbent Louella Givens of New Orleans and challengers Pamela Matus of LaPlace, Kira Orange Jones of New Orleans and Ferdinand Wallace of Reserve offered opinions on the expansion of charter schools, the use of state funds for universal pre-kindergarten, linking student performance to teacher salaries and other pertinent topics high on the minds of educators, parents and the community at large.

The candidates first addressed the state’s participation in the U.S. Department of Education’s Ed-Flex program, which allows states with strong accountability measures the authority to waive certain federal education requirements that may impede local efforts to reform and improve education. It is designed to help districts and schools carry out educational reforms and raise the achievement levels of all children by providing increased flexibility in the implementation of federal education programs in exchange for enhanced accountability for the performance of students.

Matus said states tried something similar with the No Child Left Behind, but were not successful. There is the possibility that it sets schools up to fail.

“We’ve already taken the lead from the federal government and their expert opinions were not expert,” Matus said.

Jones said it is too early to tell and added that schools should continue to focus an what is working and where innovations are possible, while Givens said it should be up to the individual districts to decide if the initiatives are necessary. Wallace said the state should consider it because programs like No Child Left Behind were too flawed.

“We have an opportunity to spend money where it is needed while bridging the gap between higher performing students and those who need help,” Wallace said.

The candidates had mixed opinions on the issue of expansions in the charter school system, which are schools open to federal, state and local tax dollars, but exempt from some state requirements.

Jones said she is for expansion because the schools are starting to see some real success. She said the school system should look at what is working. Givens said all schools should be evaluated the same and that expansion should come with the will of the community.

Wallace and Matus, meanwhile, said they were opposed to expansion because the system is not up to par and the schools do not have the same accountability that other public schools have.

The candidates also discussed the states LA-4 program, which is paving the way for universal pre-kindergarten in Louisiana. The state is currently able to fund 14,000 of the 56,000 students eligible for the program.

Wallace and Givens said the state should do what it takes to pour more funds into the program so that more students are reached at a younger age, preventing future educational breakdowns. Matus said there should be more focus on early education at home, where a young child is free to learn and explore on their own instead of being put in a classroom setting too early. Jones said the program is innovative, but underfunded and added that the state needs to begin doing more with less.

The candidates also offered input on linking teacher salaries and evaluation with student performance in the classroom. Jones said she is in favor of accountability for teachers and added that achievement in the classroom should be rewarded.

“We need to come up with creative ways to retain quality teachers,” Jones said.

Matus, Wallace and Givens all agreed that performance should be one factor but not the deciding factor that determines how teachers are evaluated. They said many variables need to be looked at.