Friday, June 29, 2012

The Advocate questions "chaotic" session

Following last week's meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, The Advocate posted an editorial about the state's "chaotic" approach to public education.

Because of the way Gov. Bobby Jindal steamrolled his radical education agenda through the legislature, The Advocate says, members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education are just now finding out what was in it.

It's hard to believe that in toto - surely some of the governor's confidantes on BESE knew exactly which of the little brown lumps in his bills were not chocolate drops.

But let's concede that most BESE members did not know the governor has removed certification as a requirement for teaching in charter schools. Most members of the legislature probably didn't know about it, either.

There is, in fact, a lot about the governor's agenda that most people do not know. It seems to have been one of the governor's goals to make sure his bills were adopted without close scrutiny.

That is the point of a letter that LFT President Steve Monaghan wrote to The Advocate's editor. Many different ideas were crammed into the governor's two main bills, and they were rushed through the legislative process at lightning speed.

"There was no time and little interest to properly debate even one of the issues," Monaghan wrote, "much less the confusing bundle that faced lawmakers. By deliberately loading these bills with multiple objectives, it was guaranteed that none of them would receive the scrutiny or understanding required."

The new certification rule is just one of the very bad ideas that slipped passed a legislature all too willing to do whatever Jindal demanded. Others will be coming to light and hurting our schools and our children for years to come.

That is, unless the lawsuits filed by the LFT and others succeed.

"It is a shame that many of those entrusted with upholding our constitution and the rule of law have yet to realize how shabbily they have treated both," Monaghan wrote.

CABL splits hairs on education "reform"

Back when the Council for a Better Louisiana was a serious good-government watchdog, it would have gone after Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Legislature hammer and tong over this session's egregious flaunting of the State Constitution.

Instead, CABL President Barry Erwin chose in this Shreveport Times op-ed to split hairs between the intent of LFT lawsuits challenging Governor Jindal's radical assault on public education and the value of the so-called reforms themselves.

The column breezily asserts that "the policies (in the new laws) are sound...Louisiana will have a strong new set of tools to help increase educational opportunities."

But as LFT President Steve Monaghan demonstrated in this response to the CABLE column, those assertions were left untested because of the brazen power play by which Gov. Jindal and his allies - including CABL - muscled the laws through the legislature.

"No open, honest debate of important public policy was allowed," Monaghan wrote. "The 2012 Legislative Session was an expression of, and a lesson on, raw political power."

It was an up or down, for us or against us, utterly unserious exercise that cheated our children and our schools of the policy discussions that public education deserves.

And that begs the question. If the governor behind this year's education bills had been named Edwin Edwards and not Bobby Jindal, would CABL have laid its credibility on the line and pledged blind allegiance as it did?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Magical denial: White defends voucher constitutionality

In today's live chat with the Shreveport Times, Superintendent of Education John White was asked, "What do you plan to do if the voucher program is found unconstitutional?"

In the same state of magical denial that has typified the Jindal administration's approach to the State Constitution, White's only reply is "I don't think that's going to happen because the laws are constitutional."

His wish can only come true if courts are somehow able to completely misconstrue this very plain statement in the Louisiana Constitution: Public education's Minimum Foundation Program formula “shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems."

Note there is no mention of private schools, religious schools, online course providers, home schools or the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Just "public elementary and secondary schools" in "parish and city school systems."

That is not the only constitutional issue at hand in the two lawsuits filed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers to challenge both Act 1 and Act 2 of the 2012 legislature. In Gov. Jindal's so-called "reforms," the violations of our state's foundational legal document are many and egregious.

Which is why it verges on the pathetic that White continues to disparage efforts to defend the rule of law with statements like this: "I also think it's a shame, frankly, that people want to keep focused on politics and adult issues when families are trying to make a choice for their kids. No matter what a court finds, we're going to do everything we can to ensure parents have options."

Really? Wasn't it the Jindal administration's laser focus on the politics of education that steamrolled this very bad package of bills through the legislature? And aren't privatizing public education and funneling the state treasury into the hands of venture capitalists the adult issues that drive the Jindal agenda?

Perhaps fortunately for White, the Shreveport Times chat session ended before anyone could ask what he meant by the "No matter what a court finds" statement.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Department claims “Louisiana Believes,” but educators are unsure

A new public relations slogan from the state’s Department of Education claims that "Louisiana Believes." However, Louisiana educators don’t seem quite ready to believe that what's being pitched comes close to being "the real thing."

In a press release issued on June 18, Superintendent of Education John White announced that the final version of his public relations effort is the “outcome of meetings with hundreds of educators across the state, who gave feedback” in a series of in-person and virtual meetings.

A survey conducted by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers after Superintendent White’s meetings tells a different story, however. Teachers complained that there were too few meetings held in accessible locations, that they were largely unaware that the events took place and that the concerns of those who attended were largely ignored.

The most significant finding in the survey is that of the teachers who responded, 65 percent remain “very confused” about Governor Bobby Jindal’s education agenda.

LFT launched the survey at the conclusion of Supt. White’s meetings, which included in-person visits to teachers at 11 sites and four virtual, online meetings. Observers estimate the total attendance at the 11 meetings at around 1,300 people.

Of the 211 teachers who responded to the survey, 97 said they attended one of the meetings in locations around the state, and 42 said they participated in one of the virtual, online conferences.

Of the teachers who attended neither type of event, over half said they were not aware of the events. Most of the rest said there was not a meeting in their area.

Supt. White said in his press release that “Louisiana Believes is a plan to empower educators and parents to make changes for their children,” and that “it’s critical that they lead us in developing and implementing the plan.”

That is an objective that was lost on teachers, according to the LFT survey. Of those who attended the town hall conferences, 66 percent found them “unsatisfactory and disappointing,” 44 percent found them “informative but inadequate to the task,” and only four percent said they were “very informative, addressing most or all of my concerns and questions.”

Responses from those attending the virtual, online conferences were similar. Sixty-five percent found them “unsatisfactory and disappointing,” 33 percent found them “informative but inadequate to the task,” and two percent found them “very informative, addressing most or all of my concerns and questions.”

The survey asked teachers to provide longer answers to questions probing their reaction to Supt. White’s presentation. It is apparent from the responses that most teachers don’t believe they were properly informed, much less consulted, as the governor’s plans were developed.

Here are a few sample comments:

• Anytime a tough question was asked of Mr. White, he would take the microphone away from the participant. He was very vague.

• He seemed like a used car sales man manipulating numbers to tell the story he wanted us to believe in.

• Several people asked valid, well-stated questions that weren't truly answered. I felt as though he quickly brushed over the difficult issues and just repeated much of the same jargon that we've been hearing for months.

• It seemed to me that it was just a PR stunt.

• If he was really interested in the input of teachers around the state he would have had these meetings before the Legislative session began, not after the bills had already passed. I fully believe that these meetings were window dressing - to make it look like he and the governor cared what we thought.

A report with many more survey responses is posted online. Please click here to see the full report.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is the state seizure of schools justified?

Schools in the state-run Recovery School District are no longer improving any faster than schools in other large urban school systems, Advocate reporter Charles Lussiere writes in this column.

That is important because State Superintendent of Education John White and his department have touted RSD's previous growth as "justification for expanding its role in Baton Rouge."

Lussiere notes that between 2007 and 2012, student test scores in New Orleans' RSD schools improved faster than the rest of the state.

But in the last year, East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parish school districts improved at the same rate as the RSD, and increased proficiency at a greater rate than the rest of the state.

Those facts beg many questions that should be answered before state control is exerted in districts outside New Orleans.

Why did RSD schools show a spurt in the years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city? Did it have as much to do with the changing population of that tragic city as with the imposition of state control over the schools?

Have any studies explained that growth and revealed a path to replicate the success elsewhere?

Why has the growth of proficiency in New Orleans RSD slowed, and why has it increased in Baton Rouge and Jefferson?

The seizure of schools by the state is a radical step. It should not be taken unless all those questions and more can be answered in its favor.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

News chain reveals voucher scheme

The Gannett chain of Louisiana newspapers has embarked on an ambitious and timely investigation into Gov. Bobby Jindal's "education reform" efforts, and has already uncovered some surprising and unsettling information.

First out of the box was Monroe News-Star reporter Barbara Leader's story about a school in Ruston that is scheduled to accept 315 voucher students even though the school does not have buildings, teachers, computers or other equipment to handle that many students.

During legislative debate on the state Minimum Foundation Program, which will fund the voucher scheme, the Ruston school became a symbol for what was wrong with the governor's plan.

Leader followed up with a report on Superintendent of Education John White's testy confrontation with a Senate committee, in which "he said the approvals were preliminary and the department will now begin its 'due diligence' process to ascertain if schools involved in the program could accommodate the number of students they said they would accept."

 But the school in question was already on the state's list of schools approved for vouchers.

Following Leader's report on the Ruston school, Alexandria Daily Town Talk reporter Jeff Matthews filed this story about about the comparatively few voucher slots available in North and Central Louisiana - most voucher schools are clustered in the southeast part of the state.

An interesting synergy erupted when reporters from two other members of the Gannett chain in Louisiana - the Shreveport Times and Lafayette Daily Advertiser - joined in the effort to understand the implications of the governor's agenda.

In this video, Leader is joined by Mary Wood and Icess Fernandez of The Times and Nicholas Persac of the Advertiser, and they discuss their series of articles called "Follow the money to Louisiana education reforms."

Woods' first article was published on May 27. The second article in the series, published June 2, documents the role played by the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in shaping the Jindal agenda.

The story reveals that the program our governor claims as his own is really part of a scheme being played out in states across the nation. The goal is to privatize public education and divert billions of dollars into the pockets of venture capitalists masquerading as educators.

We're looking forward to coming installments of the Gannett series, which is sure to win some very prestigious journalism awards.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Voucher vote "the fruit of a poisoned tree"

(Baton Rouge - June 4, 2012) Calling today’s vote by the House of Representatives to fund Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education agenda “the fruit of a poisoned tree,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said the next stage for this sad saga will be in Louisiana courtrooms.

“From the first day that this sorry scheme was introduced until today’s outrageous and tainted vote, the constitution and the rule of law have been recklessly disregarded,” Monaghan said.

By an extremely narrow 51-49 margin, the House voted to concur on a proposed $3.4 billion Minimum Foundation Program budget. In prior years, the MFP constitutionally and correctly funded public elementary and secondary schools.

But this year’s formula redefines public education to include private and religious schools, virtual online schools, corporate and industry providers, and even higher education institutions.

“Had the law been respected,” Monaghan said, “SCR 99 would have never contradicted the constitution or its stated purpose. And, having done just that, it should have failed today."

Before the vote was taken, Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) announced that SCR 99 would prevail if it received the votes of a majority of those present, even though the constitution stipulates that 53 votes would be necessary.

To the consternation of most in the chamber, Speaker Kleckley dismissed complaints by saying that the House has “a long history” of violating the constitution.

“That is just one more outrage added to the list of reasons why these issues will head to court,” Monaghan said.

During debate on the House floor, no member took the stand to defend the resolution except for Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge), who chairs the House Education Committee. From the back of the room, however, Gov. Jindal’s lobbyists relentlessly twisted arms to eke out the narrow margin by which the resolution passed.

Representatives of both parties took the microphone to denounce the proposed MFP.

A defining issue in the debate was the plan to send as much as $8,500 per pupil to religious schools. Those included an Islamic school in Jefferson Parish and several religious schools around the state which have not been fully vetted, lack certified teachers and appropriate equipment, and have no track record of student achievement.

Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin) said that he supports religious freedom, but that giving taxpayer money to religious schools resembles a “European model” that led to generations of violent conflict over differences in beliefs.

The closeness of the final vote reflected a deep-seated unease in many members of the House, Monaghan said. In past years, opposition to the formula has been reflected in single-digit votes. For 49 members to stand against the governor’s wishes is unprecedented, he said.