The debate in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday was supposed to be about amending the constitution in order to elect the state superintendent of education. That became a side issue as witnesses described allegations of fraud in the State Department of Education and laid bare Superintendent of Education John White’s sparse credentials to hold the office.
When the dust settled, the committee rejected SB 41 by Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), but only time will tell how much damage was inflicted on Superintendent White and his department by supporters of the bill.
The first blood was drawn by Sen. Kostelka, who said the superintendent of education is in charge of the biggest single state budget item, totaling $5.35 billion per year. He said the state “should have a superintendent who is accountable to the people and not a rubber stamp for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.”
Under White’s regime, Kostelka said, the public has been denied access to information about the department. Numerous lawsuits have been filed under the freedom of information act in order to view what should be public records.
Noting that most of the education overhauls pushed by White and the Jindal administration last year have been ruled unconstitutional by district courts, Sen. Kostelka said a new direction is needed, and “a clean break is the best way.”
Sen. Kostelka ticked off a laundry list of abuses by the department, including a plan to divulge personal student data to a company that would share it with for-profit organizations, the “utter failure” of the Recovery School District to turn around failing schools, and reports of overpayments and lack of supervision involving millions of dollars spent by the RSD.
The senator said that White’s credentials to head the department are sketchy at best: “We have a 30-something superintendent with a degree in English who spent six weekends at the Broad Academy,” a business-oriented organization that issued White the only certification that qualifies him for the job.
Devastating testimony was presented by Herb Bassett of Grayson, a highly qualified math teacher and band director. Bassett said that he has sent evidence to lawmakers revealing “deceit, distortion manipulation of scores and data suppression.”
Bassett documents what he called “the gross inflation of the high school performance scores. The Department covered up the inflation by intentionally mislabeling an important column of data in the initial public release of the scores.”
“The Transition Baselines,” he said, “showed that the GEE (Graduation Exit Exam)—which was being phased out—and the new EOC (End of Course) tests were mis-calibrated by 7.5 points. That’s half a letter grade. Had it been correctly labeled, the inflation would have been obvious.”
Bassett said that BESE was given a different set of scores than was shown to the public. Because the scores given to BESE were the correct ones, he said, “This shows intent to deceive.”
Bassett was interrupted by Sen. Jack Donohue (R-Mandeville), who said that these allegations are very serious, and that he would expect someone from the department or BESE to answer the charges.
Later, BESE President Chas Roemer (R-Baton Rouge) appeared in opposition to the bill. When asked about the allegations of fraud, he said that he had no knowledge about them, but that he would “look into it.”
Committee Chairman Conrad Appel (R-Metairie) asked Roemer to investigate the charges and report back to the committee.
Louisiana's indispensable investigative journalist, Tom Aswell, has much more on the story in this blog post.