Wednesday, August 15, 2012

John White takes a mulligan

As national attention focuses on the circus-clown collection of schools selected to receive state education funds through Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher scheme, Superintendent of Education John White has done what any duffer would. He’s asked for a do-over.

White can be excused for asking what your golfing buddy might request after shanking one deep into the weeds. He has made our state a national laughingstock by approving state dollars for schools that don’t have adequate teachers, facilities or curricula. With Loch Ness monsters for science and videos for literature, there’s little else to do but ask for a time out and a second chance.

So as Times-Picayune reporter Andrew Vanacore writes here, and Gannett reporter Mike Hasten writes here, White wants a chance to reflect and make changes in the risible procedure that Louisiana’s state education board uses to approve non-public schools.

Before Gov. Jindal launched his all-out effort to privatize our schools, the approval of non-publics was not that big a deal. They got the right to issue diplomas that would be recognized by the state, and they got textbooks, as well as some transportation and special education services.

The stakes rose dramatically with the advent of vouchers. Now approved schools are eligible to collect between $4,000 and $8,000 per student, courtesy of Louisiana’s taxpayers. Some of those lining up for state handouts make even the most challenged of our public schools look like paragons of academic excellence.

All the attention has White hanging like a millstone on Jindal’s national aspirations, and so the walkback began at BESE’s meetings this week. Before any more private or religious schools can be approved by the state, White wants to take a breather and rethink the two main criteria by which the state currently weighs their applications: they must not discriminate on the basis of race, and they must protect the "academic welfare, health (and) safety of children."

Those don’t constitute a heavy lift. As a result, some extremely questionable schools have passed the test.

"Conditions,” White told BESE with a straight face, “have changed such that this process now has greater importance. Thus the department has said we're going to take a look at this process."

That is a shame for the six schools that happened to be up for approval at this week’s BESE meeting. They will not be anointed by the same rubber stamp that has blessed some 385 private and religious schools in Louisiana. Even though this six have apparently met all the qualifications as the others, it is their misfortune to be applying in the August of White’s discontent.

And so on a motion by BESE President Penny Dastugue, the board obediently granted White’s Department of Education until October to devise some stricter criteria by which nonpublic schools may earn the privilege of nourishment from the public breast.

The change won’t make Jindal’s voucher scheme legal; it remains for the courts to make that determination. It certainly won’t turn the program into good public policy. It won’t improve education for the hundreds of thousands of Louisiana children who deserve better.

But hope abides that it might dampen criticism of the Jindal agenda long enough for the governor to make his leap to whatever post his ambitions direct him toward.

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