Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bad Law forces good people to the courtroom, again

(Baton Rouge – August 29, 2013) Trying to forestall an expected avalanche of lawsuits against local school boards, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers will ask a state judge to rule that Louisiana’s teacher tenure law violates due process guarantees in both the Louisiana and United States Constitutions.

Federation President Steve Monaghan said that his executive board has voted unanimously to amend an active lawsuit to address fatal flaws in the poorly drafted and hastily enacted Act 1 of 2012.

“A proverbial super storm is forming in school districts across our state,” said Monaghan. “It’s the product of a flawed state teacher evaluation system and revisions in due process rules that are devoid of fairness and reason.”

Monaghan said that real harm is already occurring as dozens of teacher evaluation grievances are being processed by local school systems. Many of these could ultimately result in court cases.

“Unless Act 1 is once again ruled unconstitutional,” Monaghan said, “teachers will increasingly be forced into the courtroom in district-by-district challenges. This scenario will rip communities apart and drain limited resources needed to educate children.”

“It is unfortunate that school boards will be compelled to bear the brunt of these contentious proceedings, because local administrations and local school boards did not cause this train wreck,” he said. “They are in an untenable position. They are compelled to follow the law, even bad law.”

In June of 2012, LFT challenged the constitutionality of Act 1, the so-called tenure law, and Act 2, which set up the state’s controversial school voucher scheme. Last March, 19th Judicial District Judge Michael Caldwell ruled Act 1 unconstitutional because it violated a provision that forbids bundling multiple objects in one piece of legislation.

In the Act 2 case, Judge Tim Kelley ruled that using public education funds to pay for school vouchers is unconstitutional, a decision that was upheld by the State Supreme Court.

Late in the 2013 legislative session, after affirming Judge Kelly’s ruling, the Supreme Court sent the Act 1 case back to Judge Caldwell’s court for further consideration.

The Federation will again urge Judge Caldwell to rule that Act 1 unconstitutionally bundled multiple objects into one bill. The Federation is amending its petition to include the complaint that Act 1 violates the due process rights of teachers under the Louisiana and United States Constitutions.

The lawsuit will be amended to include the following specific complaints:

  • Under Act 1 (2012), a tenured teacher accused of being ineffective or facing any other charge is afforded a hearing only after the teacher has been fired. The Act authorizes superintendents to terminate a tenured teacher before any hearing is held, which violates the basic principles of due process.
  • Under Act 1 (2012) The post-termination hearing is conducted by a three-person panel consisting of one person appointed by the superintendent, one person appointed by the teacher’s principal and one individual chosen by the teacher. The panel is decidedly weighted against the teacher.
  • Under Act 1 (2012), the panel’s role is merely advisory and holds no authority to reverse, amend, or otherwise alter the decision of the superintendent. A toothless panel makes a mockery of an already poisoned process.

“It is well established fact that very important laws were ill conceived, poorly drafted, and hastily enacted with little public input,” Monaghan said. “As a result, there has been chaos and rancor contributing to a dramatic increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession.”

The LFT president said that lawmakers missed an opportunity to find remedies during the 2013 session, when a bill was introduced to postpone the effects of the state’s new evaluation system for one year.

“The delay would have allowed time for the legislature and state board of education to tweak or fix the evaluation system,” Monaghan said, “and allow time for cooler heads to infuse fair process into the revised tenure law.

“However, HB 160, which was unanimously approved by the House Education Committee, and passed by the full House by 102 to zero was killed by four members of the Senate Education Committee,” Monaghan said. “That single failure compels us to file our amended petition.”

Recently, a Monroe district judge ruled in favor of a Louisiana Association of Educators lawsuit claiming that the tenure provisions of Act 1 violate teacher rights.

“Consequentially, we now face potential lawsuits that no one wants in every judicial district in Louisiana,” Monaghan said. “Without a reasonable resolution, public education will get bogged down in court and the unintended consequences will be innumerable.”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Scandalous Tennessee for-profit school has LA ties

A for-profit online school in Tennessee had the lowest results of any similar school in the state and should have been shut down. But because of a well-financed lobbying and public relations campaign, the school will continue to drain resources from public education in the state.

Why is this important to us in Louisiana? Because the Tennessee Virtual Academy’s parent company, K12 Inc., also runs the Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy and virtual learning programs in a few parishes.
According to this report in The Nashville Tennessean, “students in the Tennessee Virtual Academy made less progress as a group in reading, math, science and social studies than students enrolled in all 1,300 other elementary and middle schools who took the same tests. The school fell far short of state expectations for the second year in a row.”

Louisiana used to have a successful and popular state-run program called the Louisiana Virtual School. It has been eliminated by the current administration, to be replaced by providers like K12 Inc.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy was declared “unacceptable” by state education officials nearly a year ago. When lawmakers attempted to rein in the school, K12 Inc. launched a campaign to save its funding.
To fight the legislation, K12 Inc. brought in both a high-powered Nashville lobbying firm and another one founded by the chief advisor to the governor of the state.

As a result of the intense campaign, The Tennessean reported, “the school stands to collect about $5 million in state funds this school year. Last year, the school took in an estimated $15 million.”

K12 Inc. has been at the center of other scandals as well. In Florida, according to this National Public Radio report, the Department of Education investigated K12 “over allegations the company uses uncertified teachers and asked employees to help cover up the practice...K12 officials told certified teachers to sign class rosters that included students they hadn’t taught, according to documents that are part of the investigation.”

In the extremely lucrative world of for-profit education companies, K12 is not the only shady player.  In Pennsylvania, the head of the state’s largest online schools is “alleged to have stolen nearly $1 million in public money and improperly diverted a total of $8 million to avoid federal income taxes,” according to this Education Week report.

No one doubts the potential benefits of virtual learning. But the way that states like Louisiana, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Florida and others have opened their treasuries to for-profit providers provides a tempting target for profiteers.

The Louisiana Virtual School was accomplishing its mission competently and scandal-free. Why would elected officials choose to replace it with a model that has ushered in vultures to pick the bones of public education?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Flurry of surveys re-opens debate on education reforms

(Baton Rouge – August 22, 2013) New surveys demonstrate that parents overwhelmingly favor public education as the best choice for children, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said today. The results call into question continued efforts to privatize the state’s education system and judge teachers by standardized test results, he added.

“Seventy percent of Americans oppose vouchers for private and religious schools,” Monaghan said. “That is the highest negative ever recorded in 45 years of research by Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup organization.”

Monaghan’s comments came after release of the annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the public’s attitudes toward public schools.

Reflecting public support for neighborhood schools, Monaghan said, was the PDK/Gallup finding that 71 percent of public school parents would grade the school their oldest child attends as “A” or “B.”

Another poll released about the same time, from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, shows that 76 percent of public school parents rate their child’s education as good or excellent, and that 82 percent have high opinions of their children’s teachers.

“These are careful, scientific surveys,” Monaghan said, “that need to be taken seriously as we debate the nature of education reform in Louisiana.”

The state’s reliance on standardized tests for determining everything from teacher salaries to school funding does not seem to have great public support. In the PDK/Gallup poll, for example, only 22% of Americans believe that increased testing has helped the performance of local public schools. A solid majority (58%) reject the notion that teacher evaluations should include “how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests.”

In the AP-NORC survey, parents agreed that the proper use of standardized tests should be “to identify areas where students need extra help.” But according to Monaghan, the testing imposed under new state law has little diagnostic value, and is used primarily to label teachers, students and schools.

Also in the AP-NORC survey, parents were asked to rank the importance of different factors in determining teacher salaries. The top three responses were classroom observation by local school officials, the type of training or advanced degrees obtained by the teacher and years of teaching experience. In Louisiana, all three have been eclipsed by testing, and state officials downplay the importance of degrees and experience.

The PDK/Gallup poll shows support for community charter schools, as well as a belief that students can “receive a better education at public charter schools than at other public schools.”

“We’d like to see more research on that question,” Monaghan said. “Apparently people see charter schools as places where there is parental support, where discipline is enforced, where disruptive students can be removed and where learning is prized. Instead of abandoning traditional public schools, we need to inculcate those values into them.”

The PDK/Gallup survey also reveals general support for “increasing opportunities for students to earn high school credit online over the Internet.”

While that may seem to bolster Louisiana’s controversial Course Choice pilot, Monaghan urged caution.

“Louisiana had a viable public school online learning program,” Monaghan said, “but it was supplanted by Course Choice, which is little more than an online voucher scheme. Course Choice opens the state treasury to profiteers as certainly as any other voucher program.”

Not all of the survey results would lead to policies favored by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Monaghan said. But the deeper issue revealed by surveys like these is that no real policy debate was allowed when still-contested reforms were rammed through the 2012 legislative session.

“Not since the days of Huey Long have such radical policies been imposed so quickly and with such overwhelming political force,” Monaghan said. “We are seeing the consequences of that action as courts overturn policies and teacher morale plummets.

“We need to reopen the education reform debate in Louisiana. It should be informed by surveys like these, by scientific research, and by input from educators and parents. Political ideology and potential profits should be left at the door when we discuss the education of our children.”

Monday, August 19, 2013

Important lessons from the New Orleans "reform"

A new article in the Berkley Review of Education is a scathing review of the education “reform” movement in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

In the article, titled “New Orleans Education Reform: A Guide for Cities of a Warning for Communities?” writer Kristen Buras deconstructs the praise heaped on the collapse of the city’s public education system and its replacement with a largely charter school network.

Buras and members of the Urban South Grassroots Research Collective take issue with the conventional wisdom that believes New Orleans is better off under a regime of quasi-private charter schools.

“Instead, she writes, “we assert that current reforms, including human capital and charter school development, have been immensely destructive to African American students, veteran teachers, and historically black neighborhoods in New Orleans. Ours is a warning for communities nationally. These ‘reforms’ are not a guide for cities; they are a stark threat to the education, cultural integrity, and political-economic power of communities struggling for a semblance of justice.”

The article briefly described the series of events following Katrina that led up to the reconstruction of the city’s school system. Those included the mass firing of thousands of veteran, mostly African-American educators, and drastic revisions to state laws under pressure from the federal government and business interests.

The well-researched, peer reviewed article includes several lessons learned from the “destructive reforms that education entrepreneurs hope to spread.” Hopefully, paying attention to these lessons will save other school districts from repeating New Orleans’ mistakes:

First Lesson: Marginalization of indigenous veteran teachers and leaders is viewed as innovative by education entrepreneurs, who recruit inexperienced staff to teach in charter schools at the expense of our children.

Second Lesson: The development and expansion of privately managed charter schools threaten to restructure public education as a business, with indigenous traditions and place-based curricula giving way to management practices that have little connection to students and what they need to achieve and thrive.

Third Lesson: Rather than universally respecting students’ right to learn, charter schools focus on cost containment in special education and may exclude or fail to adequately serve students based on such concerns.

Fourth Lesson: Human capital and charter school development are reforms imposed from above without genuine community engagement regarding how to improve local public schools.

Buras is currently writing about the mass firings of New Orleans teachers for a book to be published in the near future.