Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Louisiana’s most improved public school shuts its doors

Louisiana’s perfect storm - an ill-conceived school reform experiment coupled with drastic budget reductions - has claimed another victim. The most improved public school in the state has been shuttered by the East Baton Rouge Parish school Board.

As reported here by Charles Lussiere of The Advocate, EBR Lab Academy was closed because the state seized control of the facility in which it was housed, and the school board’s budget could not bear the cost of a school that gave intensive assistance to kids who needed it.

As Lussiere writes, “EBR Lab shared a campus with Istrouma High and both were run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, but the demise of those two schools was set in motion by RSD.”

A struggling Istrouma High School was taken over by the Recovery School District. EBR Lab could not remain at Istrouma, which was no longer part of the Baton Rouge school system, and board members saw a chance to save $1 million by simply closing the successful experimental school. Like most other school districts, Baton Rouge is suffering because of Governor Bobby Jindal’s refusal to raise education spending along with the cost of inflation.

And so more than 200 kids who were achieving their goals have been scattered, and their faculty has moved on to other jobs in other schools, and a successful public school is gone.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nessie Vs. Darwin on LPB

Watch reporter Sue Lincoln's report about religious schools that want state education funds, but teach that dinosaurs roam the earth today and the planet is only 6,000 years old.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

John White and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

It’s only Tuesday, and already this week is not going very well for Superintendent of Education John White and the radical education agenda espoused by his patron, Governor Bobby Jindal.

On Sunday, Advocate columnist Mark Ballard stripped the bark off the governor’s contention that the voucher scheme he and Supt. White have foisted on the public does not consume money approved by taxpayers for their local school systems.

The governor and his attorneys have sworn that not one penny of local tax proceeds will leave the district because of vouchers. Ballard discovered proof that vouchers will, indeed cost local school systems money. It was found in legislative testimony provided by…John White.

That happened on the Day of Rest, and much worse was still to come.

On Monday, we learned that Superintendent White and his colleagues on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have been summoned to New Orleans by a federal judge, who wants them to explain why he should not issue an injunction against the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish.

The judge is responsible for overseeing a desegregation order in the parish. There is reason to believe that vouchers will disrupt the delicate balance orchestrated by the court, and that would be frowned upon by the federal judiciary.

That was local stuff. Later on Monday evening a story broke in The Nation, exposing Supt. White, Gov. Jindal and many of their allies to national media attention that they’d much rather avoid, with a headline screaming “Why Do Some of America's Wealthiest Individuals Have Fingers in Louisiana's Education System?”

The story by reporter Matthew Cunningham-Cook documented the purchase of BESE by “a coterie of extremely wealthy billionaires” who pumped more money into last fall’s state school board election than had ever been spent before.

Nearly $2.4 million was spent to elect a BESE majority whose very first order of business was to appoint John White as superintendent of education.

White, whose appointment had been blocked by the previous board, set about doing the work he had apparently been brought into the state to accomplish: making the billions spent on our schools vulnerable to what the magazine called “privatization on a scale incomparable to anywhere else in the nation…”

As Cunningham-Cook put it, “the state spends $8.7 billion dollars annually on education, and some exceedingly powerful private business interests want a piece of it.”

Back in Louisiana, Supt. White found himself under fire from a brace of state senators who believe he lied during his confirmation hearing last spring, and want to investigate the possible perjury.

According to Gannett reporter Barbara Leader, Sen. Bob Kostelka of Monroe and Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans want the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee to ask the superintendent about his testimony regarding the genesis of the voucher program.

Apparently, Supt. White “told members that a letter detailing the second phase of the approval process had been ‘planned for some time and meant to highlight what comes next,’ but emails obtained recently by The News-Star show a different story.”

In a separate story, Leader laid out a minute-by-minute scenario in which a panicky John White attempted to control the damage caused by newspaper reports that described the shoddy process employed to approve private and religious schools receiving vouchers.

(That process had led to approval of schools that didn’t have enough classrooms or teachers, and that used TV screens and DVDs to instruct students.)

And Supt. White’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week isn’t over yet.

On Thursday, BESE will be required under state law to hold a hearing at which the public can comment on the proposed rules that Supt. White came up with to regulate the voucher program.

When those rules were introduced in July, opponents argued that they would set a much lower standard of accountability for voucher schools than for traditional public schools.

But those opponents, including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, were only allowed three minutes to make their case and to suggest improvements. BESE then voted overwhelmingly to grant preliminary approval to the new rules.

After a careful reading of the state’s Administrative Procedures Act, LFT invoked a section requiring bodies like BESE, if requested, to hold public hearings on new rules.

And so at 2:00 P.M. on Thursday, the board will convene to hear what LFT and others have to say about the inadequate rules Supt. White intends to apply to the multimillion dollar voucher program.

Even at the end of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, problems still loom for Supt. White, Gov. Jindal and their radical education schemes. A trial date has been set for November 28 to determine the constitutionality of the voucher program. And soon another trial date will hear LFT’s lawsuit challenging the legality of the governor’s other major education initiative. That one bases virtually every major decision of a teacher’s professional life – from hiring to tenure to salaries to termination – on the outcome of an evaluation system that is universally reviled by educators.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Committee delays debate of OGB sale

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee was slated to discuss Gov. Jindal’s plan to sell an Office of Group Benefits health insurance plan to a private company Thursday, but cancelled the meeting at the last minute.

While spokesmen for the governor’s office said that lawmakers simply needed more time to review the proposed sale of OGB’s preferred provider organization, one lawmaker, Rep. Katrina Jackson of Monroe, said the governor lacked enough votes on the committee to approve the sale.

Response to the governor’s plan has been overwhelmingly negative – more than 4,300 people have signed a Louisiana Federation of Teachers’ petition opposing privatization (Click here if you haven’t already signed the petition!).

OGB manages the health insurance of some 60,000 current and retired public employees, including teachers and school employees in a number of school systems. It is one of the best-run and scandal-free operations in state government. In fact, it has built up a surplus of some $500 million over the past few years.

The governor claims that privatizing the office would save the state money. But according to reports, the OGB currently spends only about three percent of its income on management costs. The same costs for a private company could be in the 10% to 15% range.

Privatizing the office would probably not save money for the state, but it would eliminate the jobs of 177 public servants, putting even more Louisiana citizens in the unemployment line.

Advocate reporter Michelle Millhollon wrote this story about the meeting cancellation.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Team Jindal's artful dodge on voucher funding

Apparently stung by a series of public meetings in St. Tammany Parish, during which school board members laid out the damage that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education agenda is causing to public schools, the governor “launched an offensive last week to say local tax dollars are not actually being used to help pay for some students to go to private schools,” according to Advocate columnist Mark Ballard.

The governor’s attorney told Ballard that “No local funds, not one dime of property ad valorem taxes or of property taxes or of any millages, any taxes, can be traced” to a student attending a private or religious school because of Jindal’s voucher scheme.

That artfully worded dodge conceals the fact that the state funds the vouchers in part by holding back money that would otherwise be sent to local school systems. As Ballard writes, “The state writes a check to the private schools and discounts local school districts the same amount.”

That amount includes money approved by local taxpayers for teacher salaries, school construction or other local education needs.

Writes Ballard, “In an analysis written after Act 2, which authorizes the voucher program, had been passed by both chambers, the Legislative Fiscal Office stated: ‘Local school districts will be responsible for a portion of the cost of the Student Scholarship Program.’”

In St. Tammany, school board members report that Jindal’s voucher scheme is costing one of the state’s premier school systems $2.1 million, despite promises from lawmakers that the district would be unscathed by the voucher program.

Statewide, according to Ballard’s column, the voucher program will cost a total of about $25 million. Of that, the state will pay about $12 million, and local taxpayers will pony up about $13 million.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In a VAN down by the RIVER

In a classic Saturday Night Live sketch, comic Chris Farley portrayed a failed motivational speaker who now plies his trade from a van down by the river.

Superintendent of Education John White may have found Farley’s equal in a motivational speaker hired by the department to shill for the Course Choice Program.

“Lefty” Lefkowith is paid $145,000 a year to promote the governor’s “course choice” program, as seen in this YouTube video. Thanks to a public records request by blogger Tom Aswell, we know that Lefkowith’s title at the department is “Director of the Office of Portfolio,” although he claims to be Deputy Superintendent.

Since last July, Lefkowith has been, in the words of a Department of Education spokesperson, “effectively implementing a number of large, complex programs and activities aimed at benefiting Louisiana school children.”
In plain English, he was hired to make it easier for corporations and entrepreneurs to raid the public education budget and siphon funds away from our schools. He apparently has no education credentials, but “has worked with private sector companies and government agencies across the nation to harness the talent of professionals in diverse industries and develop creative solutions to improve results.”

In Superintendent White’s world, an academic background, appropriate credentials and experience as an educator are all disqualifying criteria for high-salary positions. Just ask the 27-year old director of teacher evaluation, who does not have a teaching certificate.

The Department of Education’s swank Claiborne Building is definitely not a van, but it is down by the river. That’s good enough for the superintendent.

UPDATE: Tom Aswell, Louisiana’s indispensable investigative journalist, lifted up a rock and found the creepy-crawly essence of “Lefty” Lefkowith in this blog entry. Not just a carnival barker for privatization, it seems that Lefty has an unsavory past “with strong connections to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the infamous Enron Corp.” and schemes to deregulate energy and manipulate water rights in the Sunshine State.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

John White's sense of irony

Irony, noun: Expression in which the intended meaning of the words is the opposite of their usual sense.

Has Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White developed a sense of irony? Judging from news and editorial reports of the last few days, the imposing stone Claiborne Building, which houses White’s department, has become a Temple of the Ironic.

On one hand, White explained to Shreveport Times reporter Mary Nash-Wood that his department requires the services of a new public relations person because “The No. 1 thing people ask for is more communication. We’re not about just hoping information gets to parents and teachers. We’re trying to be proactive in working to meet those parents, teachers and students wherever they are.”

So desperate is the need that White reached all the way to Tallahassee, Florida to hire one Deirdre Finn at the sum of $12,000 per month for four months (with a three-year option) to manage communications for his office.

The need is not so critical that Ms. Finn’s presence is required in Baton Rouge full-time, however: “she divides her duties between Baton Rouge and Tallahassee.”

Here’s where the ironic part comes in. At the same time that White so desperately needs a Floridian to manage communications in Louisiana, his department is being sued for its refusal to communicate important information to the news media.

On several occasions, White promised to give up records involving the way private and religious schools were chosen to participate in the new state voucher program. He has reneged on that promise, and now refuses to explain the voucher process to the news media and the tax-paying public.

White’s refusal raised the ire of the Baton Rouge Advocate, which opined in an editorial, “If the Department of Education is acting in the best interest of the public in implementing the voucher program, then why does White feel the need to hide documents relating to the program from public view?”

The Lake Charles American Press is also incensed: “But because taxpayers are footing the bill for this program — the state is paying up to almost $9,000 per student — the public has a right to know the details of how this program has evolved and is evolving.”

It’s not that White is unable to communicate the information because he lacks a staff member. He just doesn’t want to.

Which raises the question: Is Deidre Finn being paid $12,000 per month to really give out information, or is it to put an attractive spin on White’s refusal to communicate?

Maybe irony is not the right word to use here.

Cynical, adjective: Denying the sincerity of people’s motives and actions.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Flawed system shouldn’t dictate teacher salaries

Dependant on Value Added Model, even 1% is too much, LFT says

(Baton Rouge – October 8, 2010) With a growing number of reports illustrating the chaos fomented by a new teacher evaluation system, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan asks school boards to limit the damage by minimizing the effect that the system has on teacher compensation.

Under Act 1 of 2012, school boards must design new teacher salary schedules by January 1, and have them in place by the 2013-14 school year. The law requires teacher effectiveness as measured by these evaluations to determine up to 50% of teacher compensation. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has challenged the constitutionality of the new law.

“This is insane,” said Monaghan. “A broken system, a flawed model, will be used to determine the intrinsic value of teachers and their economic worth.

“We urge school boards to protect their teachers from unnecessary damage by minimizing the effect that the flawed system will have on teacher compensation,” Monaghan said. “We understand that the law requires a percentage; we’re saying make it one percent or less, until this is fixed.”

Recently, a major newspaper called Governor Jindal’s evaluation scheme unfair and concluded that it “borders on immoral.” Just last week, one of the governor’s chief allies and a strong supporter of Act 1 called the evaluation scheme “ridiculous.”

“We are learning that many of the state’s finest teachers will be labeled ‘ineffective’ because of a flawed rating system which squeezes teachers into predetermined results or outcomes,” Monaghan said.

“Evidence from around Louisiana demonstrates that the new evaluation program does not accurately reflect teacher effectiveness,” Monaghan said. “It is an inappropriate instrument on which to base any significant portion of a teacher’s salary.”

To read more of this article, please click here.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Evaluation raises GOP lawmaker's ire

They say that it took arch-conservative communist baiter Richard Nixon to finally breech the wall that had separated the United States from China since Mao Zedong’s revolution. Will it now require one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s most loyal allies to bring down the travesty that is the governor’s teacher evaluation scheme?

That conclusion can be drawn from this article by Advocate reporter Will Sentell, in which Shreveport Republican Representative Alan Seabaugh calls the new teacher evaluation program “nothing short of ridiculous.”

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has been calling the governor’s plan ridiculous, and worse, since it was first enacted two years ago. But the stakes climbed exponentially this year, when Jindal’s Act 1 tied employment decisions ranging from salary to tenure to termination to the evaluation scheme.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers vigorously opposed Act 1 when it was rammed through the legislature. Lawmakers like Seabaugh scoffed at our concerns. The governor and his amen chorus called us “agents of the status quo” and worse.

When LFT stood alone and filed a lawsuit to halt the evaluation system, we were called goons. The once-respected Council for a Better Louisiana called our lawsuit “unfortunate” and said that we are “more interested in taking care of adult issues at the educational expense of students.”

Superintendent of Education John White whined that “the LFT keeps dragging us back to politics and courtrooms.”

But with the law going into effect and its noxious results blooming, the worm is turning.

Around the state, educators are learning that Jindal’s scheme is aimed not at improving education, but at shoehorning teachers into arbitrary categories. His ultimate goal seems to be destroying trust in public education so that the billions spent on our schools can be diverted into the pockets of education entrepreneurs.

In a recent editorial, the Lake Charles American Press termed Jindal’s evaluation scheme unfair and immoral after learning that some of the best teachers in some of the state’s best schools have been labeled “ineffective.”

And now the scales have fallen from Rep. Seabaugh’s eyes. It seems that the top-rated elementary school in the state is in his district, and teachers in that school have been victimized by Jindal’s agenda.

As reporter Sentell writes, “the jobs of some teachers could be in jeopardy because even high-scoring students who show drops from the previous year can result in the teachers being rated as ineffective.”

As Rep. Seabaugh told the reporter, “You literally have the most successful teachers in the state being told that they are highly ineffective.”

Rep. Seabaugh has now written a letter of complaint to education officials around the state. Like Nixon’s visit to China, this could be the start of something big.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A caution to moviegoers: Don’t get trigger happy!

A new motion picture that has been described as an inept, bizarre and deceptive attack on public education, teachers and their unions proposes that parent trigger laws are the cure for what ails our schools.

“Won’t Back Down” has been almost universally panned by critics, but a good movie was never the intent of the right-wing billionaire who financed it – the point is to promote the idea, now codified in Louisiana law, that parents should have the right to take over schools they perceive as failing.

But as this article by Molly Redden in The New Republic reveals, there are a number of problems with parent trigger laws that were not discussed when Gov. Jindal rammed his bogus education “reforms” through the legislature last spring.

Louisiana’s trigger provision, like those in six other states, calls for replacing traditional public schools. Under Act 2 of 2012, the law applies to schools rated “D” or “F” on state report cards. If parents representing a majority of the students attending the school sign a petition, the school will be transferred to the State Recovery School District, which presumably will charter the school.

But as The New Republic’s article point out, a Stanford University/Credo study shows that a vast majority of charter schools “fared worse or no better than their public school counterparts in producing academic gains.”

That same study said that Louisiana’s charter schools performed slightly better than the national average. But – and this is a really, really big but – the study clearly says that Louisiana’s advantage, when the study was conducted, was that our state had few charter schools and the requirements to be chartered were very strict.

Under the Jindal regime, however, limitations on charter schools have been obliterated in the rush to abandon public schools. Expect that small advantage to disappear in the next round of charter school studies.

“Won’t Back Down” was produced by Walden Media, a right-wing propaganda firm funded by the very people who want to privatize and profit from our schools. The movie was described by Variety critic Peter DeBruge as “grossly oversimplifying” education reform. He called it a “disingenuous pot-stirrer (that )plays to audiences’ emotions rather than their intelligence.”

A range of critics describe the “Won’t Back Down” as “divisive,” “manipulative,” “heavy-handed,” “noxious” and “muckraking.” But the most damning verdict against the movie was pronounced by audiences, who have stayed away in droves. It reported the worst box office ever for a movie opening on over 2,500 screens.

Parents should also be very wary of the parent trigger laws lauded by the movie. The New Republic’s Redden ends her article by reporting that California parents who once took advantage of a trigger law “now testify to feeling like they were duped into signing over their children’s school to a charter school corporation, without understanding that there was no alternative option. And that, of course, is the worry attached to Won’t Back Down—more duping, set to the rousing strains of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger.’”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don't let Gov. Jindal sell the Office of Group Benefits!

Don't let Gov. Jindal sell the Office of Group Benefits!

Click here to sign the petition!
Despite an outcry from thousands of public servants, Governor Bobby Jindal seems determined to sell the State Office of Group Benefits to a private company.
OGB manages the health insurance of some 60,000 current and retired public employees, including teachers and school employees in a number of school systems. It is one of the best-run and scandal-free operations in state government. In fact, it has built up a surplus of some $500 million over the past few years.

Selling OGB could mean:
  • Higher premiums
  • Slower response when Louisiana’s teachers, school employees and public servants need health care.
  • Outsourcing 177 state jobs, perhaps to foreign countries
The Attorney General says that Gov. Jindal cannot privatize OGB without approval from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which will meet in October. 
Please click this link to learn more and tell members of the Joint Budget Committee to vote NO when they are asked to approve privatizing the Office of Group Benefits.