Wednesday, December 18, 2013

BESE, you got some ‘splaining to do!

Whenever comic icon Lucille Ball got into farcical trouble on the old I Love Lucy series, husband Desi Arnaz would exclaim, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!”

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is having a Lucy moment this week, being called to explain multiple follies, mostly committed in the name of “choice,” but some as what might be considered fraud.

First, the fraud-y stuff. reporter Lauren McGaughy writes that BESE member Walter Lee has apparently been double billing the DeSoto Parish School Board – where he was superintendent of schools – and BESE for travel expenses. He also allegedly got sweetheart deals on buy-backs of parish-owned vehicles. And he “determined his own pay raises, granting himself substantial salary increases that conflicted with recommendations by the system's business director.”

BESE President Chas Roemer says he will take “appropriate action” and ask for repayment and maybe censure of the 13-year veteran BESE member.

More travel news comes from Louisiana’s indispensible investigative journalist, Tom Aswell. His Louisiana Voice reports that seven Department of Education employees with a combined income topping $1 million are driving large, courtesy of the state.

In just over a year, those seven high rollers ran up $63,700 in car rental fees, not including fuel. Aswell reports that “they have been cruising around town in vehicles like Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Liberty, Jeep Compass, GMC Terrain, Nissan Murano, Chevrolet Yukon, and Cadillac Escalade at monthly rentals as high as $1,450.”
“These Enterprise rentals,” Aswell writes, “ are not the occasional rentals for quick one- or two-day trips on departmental business; they are perks by every definition of the word—used year-round, nights and weekends, for personal use as well as the occasional business-related trip. And perks are taxable in-kind income.”
On to the “choice” parade of sleazy hits:

The biggest slam on BESE’s credibility as an agent of reform came from Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera. This article by reporter Danielle Dreilinger quotes the state official as saying that Gov. Jindal’s voucher program “doesn't have enough safeguards to ensure participating private schools spend public money properly and educate the students they admit.”

Because LFT and others filed a successful lawsuit against the state, vouchers have to be funded outside the Minimum Foundation Program, with a line item in the general fund budget. This year, that amounts to nearly $45 million divided among 118 private and religious schools. More than 6,700 students participate.

While State Superintendent of Education John White contends that the state has sufficient safeguards to protect parents and taxpayers, Purpera disagreed.

"Without specific criteria, LDOE cannot ensure it is holding schools accountable for their academic performance and treating schools consistently," Purpera wrote.

The state could have been saved the trouble, as this report from KATC-TV in Lafayette notes. Over a year ago, the LFT urged BESE to adopt a more stringent accountability procedure for the voucher program. Our effort was rebuffed.

As LFT President Steve Monaghan said, “This sent a very clear signal. The mission of the department of education was to champion vouchers and privatization by any means necessary, and that’s why more than a year later we have audit report stating the obvious, and what we had attempted to fix in October 2012.”

While we’re on the subject of accountability, BESE recently adopted a blanket renewal for many charter schools around the state. Just six days later, the FBI raided Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School for as-yet unknown reasons, according to this story by Advocate reporters Charles Lussiere and Will Sentell.

Kenilworth is under the auspices of The Pelican Educational Foundation, which is apparently linked to a shadowy Turkish outfit known as the Gulen movement. In 2011, the Pelican Foundation’s charter for Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans was revoked for “allegations of inappropriate use of school space for religious processions, concealing student-on-student sexual harassment and intimidating teachers."

In this WBRZ-TV report by Rob Krieger, BESE President Chas Roemer wonders if Kenilworth violated the terms of its charter.

Maybe these scandalous episodes are the natural outcome of the veil of secrecy that shrouds BESE and the Department of Education. Countless public information requests have been ignored, leading Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss to include Louisiana in her list of states in which education policy “is increasingly being made in secret or without public input — and with a lot of private philanthropic money.

“In Louisiana,” she wrote, “the 19th Judicial District Court recently ruled that the state Department of Education does not have to provide researchers with raw data that would help them determine if school reform efforts are working — and can pick and choose to whom it provides the information.  The court ruled that the data is not subject to the Public Records Act, according to Research on Reforms, Inc., which sued the department for the information. The suit was filed after the organization requested raw data and was denied it — even though the department had given it to other researchers already.

Finally, there is this week’s revelation that a voucher school in Baton Rouge subjects potential teachers to an inquisition before they can be hired, reported here by The Advocate’s Will Sentell.

Hosanna Christian Academy requires teachers to answer invasive, personal questions about their religious faith, living arrangements and private lives – questions that no other employer, public or private, would be allowed to ask.

The Statement of Faith on the application expresses a clear preference for dunking over sprinkling where baptism is concerned. That the applicant is expected to be of the Christian faith is not in doubt.

All of which might be okay, except that the school derives most of its income from public tax dollars in the form of vouchers. The state pays tuition for about 460 of the school’s 675 students. Last year, Hosanna collected $1.4 million in public funds.

That led LFT President Steve Monaghan to say, “We understand the church’s desire to hire whomever they wish. We do not believe that the taxpayer dollars should be used for such discriminatory employment practices, however.”

“Those kinds of issues consumed Europe in religious wars for centuries,” Monaghan said. “That is precisely why the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment erects a wall of separation between church and state. That is why no public funds should be provided to institutions with religious preconditions for employment.”
No official response from BESE was forthcoming. According to Sentell, “Chas Roemer, president of BESE, was unavailable for comment and his message mailbox was full.”

Suspected thief unwelcome in Baton Rouge schools

Principals in East Baton Rouge Parish schools have received a message from the superintendent’s office, telling them that Montrell McCaleb and his organization, Empowering Students, are unwelcome in the schools.

McCaleb’s Web site  features pictures of him with Gov. Jindal, and a long list of corporate sponsors, including Raising Cane’s, Infiniti of Baton Rouge, Acura of Baton Rouge, Coca-Cola, The Advocate, Kleinpeter Dairy, Piccadilly Cafeterias and many more.

The Web site says that "Team Empowerment was founded in 2013 with the purpose of providing youth and young adults grades 3-8 with assistance with their academic studies and prepare them for the new Common Core Standards."

Earlier this year, McCaleb was booked with theft from the Capitol Area Transportation Service, where he was a member of the governing board. He is accused of stealing “nearly $1500 in bus system funds to pay his private satellite TV and cell phone bills.”

Here is the message that Superintendent Taylor sent to principals:

It is our understanding that Montrell McCaleb may contact you or e-mail you to request an appointment to discuss services he provides through his organization, Empowering Students.

Dr. Taylor asked me to let all principals know that under no circumstances has he given permission for Mr. McCaleb to contact you on his behalf about his program. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rep. Vance McAllister visits the LFT convention

Congressman Vance McAllister makes his first public appearance as a member of congress at the LFT's 49th annual convention in Alexandria on November 25.

Gen. Russel Honore addresses the LFT convention

 Gen. Russel Honore tells news media why he visited the Louisiana Federation of Teachers' 49th annual convention in Alexandria on November 25.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Analysis: Gov. Jindal is Playing Politics with Race and Education

BOULDER, CO (November 6, 2013) -- The past several months have seen a well-orchestrated political outcry, led by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, attacking the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for filing a legal motion in a long-standing desegregation case. The motion asks the court to require Louisiana to collect and report relevant data about the impact of that state’s voucher policy on racial segregation.

The political campaign against the DOJ raises legal and educational issues involving vouchers and racial segregation. Much Ado about Politics, a Policy Memo published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), concludes that the DOJ’s motion is routine, is important, and is in fact consistent with wording in the Louisiana voucher law itself. According to author and NEPC director Kevin Welner, “Jindal and other opponents either misunderstand or misrepresent the DOJ’s actions.”

Louisiana’s new voucher law may undermine established desegregation orders issued as a result of unconstitutional discrimination by the state of Louisiana as well as many of its school districts. The recent DOJ motion is not designed to stop the implementation of the state’s voucher program. Instead, the motion seeks to bring the program within the scope of existing law and to avoid predictable harm to children that would occur if the racial isolation of Louisiana students were increased.

Governor Jindal and his allies have argued that such segregation-related orders and concerns should be set aside because the voucher law allows some students to transfer away from schools that are not rated “A” or “B”. Implicit in this argument, which is generally wrapped in civil-rights rhetoric, is the empirical claim that implementation of the voucher policy will meaningfully improve those students’ opportunities to learn.

Policy Memo author Kevin Welner explains the flaw in Jindal’s argument, “The research evidence offers little reason to expect any meaningful academic advantage from vouchers. But the evidence does offer reason to expect that the vouchers may result in greater segregation.” While there is nothing inherent in a voucher policy that makes it likely to increase segregation; the specific design and implementation of the policy are key.”

Welner, an attorney and policy analyst, cautions: “A serious attempt to avoid segregation would begin with a look at the evidence of how a given policy is actually playing out. The politicians currently attacking the DOJ are wrong to try to divert attention from the evidence we have about the impacts of voucher programs.”

The NEPC policy memo, Much Ado about Politics (and Much Ignored about Research Evidence): Analyzing the Voucher/Desegregation Dispute between Gov. Jindal and the US Department of Justice, can be found on the NEPC website at

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The truth about the Bush/Jindal voucher agenda

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal joined Florida Governor Jeb Bush in Washington today to push their failed voucher agenda and rail against a Justice Department lawsuit aimed at requiring the state to follow existing desegregation agreements.

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder filed suit against the state for failing to properly clear its voucher scheme with federal courts that hold sway over the decades-old cases. The filing is expected to be heard this month by Federal District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who had ruled earlier this year that the voucher scheme violates a 38-year old desegregation agreement in Tangipahoa Parish.

“This case is actually very simple, despite efforts and talking points that paint it as an assault on poor children,” said Louisiana Federation of Teaches President Steve Monaghan. “The Louisiana Department of Education had an obligation to address specific questions presented by the U.S. Justice Department because it could have an impact on desegregation agreements in a number of Louisiana school districts. The state failed to provide the information to the Justice Department, leaving the Justice Department with no alternative but to file amendments to the existing lawsuit.”

Monaghan said the adoption of the voucher scheme and the subsequent refusal to provide requested information has been a constant that has led to an unprecedented number of lawsuits.

“Constitution and law have been consistently treated as mere suggestions. Then, vilification of those who dare to challenge, followed by outrage when the court sends a strong rebuke has been the pattern,” Monaghan said. “The only difference is this time is the act has been taken to the national stage.”

Separating fact from fiction

Bush and Jindal say they are standing up for choice and their agenda is masked in rhetoric of supporting children. But the facts are clear-- choice and vouchers don’t improve student achievement, are often discriminatory, and deny children a high-quality learning experience that ensures they have the critical thinking and problem solving skills they need to succeed.

With schools more segregated now than 40 years ago, the Department of Justice must continue to serve as a watchdog to ensure all children are treated equally.
Louisiana’s voucher scheme does not help children
A recent release of state testing results revealed the Louisiana students attending private schools through Governor Jindal’s school voucher program perform a whopping 30 points below average. Only 40% of these students leave the year performing at or above grade level.

Voucher schools avoid public oversight and accountability

In a recent Louisiana state audit, the New Living Word School failed because it was not accounting for its funds properly and was removed from the voucher program.

State Superintendent John White touted this as an example of appropriate accountability and oversight, also claiming that 51 of 52 schools passed the audit. However, New Living Word School was the only school of the 52 that could be audited because the bookkeeping at the other schools made them unauditable.

Only 7 of 115 schools participating in the program in 2012-1013 indicated in their annual reports that they had special education classes.

Louisiana schools with children enrolled through the voucher program are using materials from Bob Jones University Press and ABeka Book. These publishers are not on the state-approved textbook list. They teach that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time and that KKK fights the “decline in morality” and push anti-science and creationist teachings.

At one voucher school in Louisiana, pregnant students are expelled.

Vouchers Do Not Increase Student Achievement

A September 2002 General Accounting Office report that reviewed 78 privately funded school voucher programs that used family income as their only eligibility criteria and permitted families to use their award at nearly any private school concluded, “there is no significant difference in achievement gains between voucher users and nonusers.”

Milwaukee vouchers: A February 2013 report found that the Milwaukee public school students outperform voucher students.

Fifty-seven percent of voucher school students scored proficient or higher in reading, compared to 60 percent of Milwaukee Public School students who reached proficiency in reading. Forty-one percent of the students in voucher schools reached proficiency in math on the test, while 50 percent of their Milwaukee Public School counterparts reached proficiency.

District of Columbia vouchers: After studying the program since its beginning and collecting data from 2004 to 2009, University of Arkansas researcher Patrick J. Wolf and his team found that “There is no conclusive evidence that the [voucher program] affected student achievement.”

Cleveland vouchers: A 2007 study found no differences for voucher students in five out of six subjects.

Voucher Schools Lack Accountability

Voucher schools don’t have to disclose their budgets to parents, taxpayers, or state authorities, enabling fraud and financial mismanagement.

Vouchers Do Not Increase “Choice” For the Vast Majority of Students and Are Often Discriminatory

In jurisdictions where voucher programs exist, private school operators decide how many, if any, voucher students they will admit. They also decide who to admit.

According to a U.S. Department of Education (“USDE”) survey of urban private schools, up to 85 percent of schools would “definitely or probably not” want to participate in a voucher program if they were required to accept “students with special needs, such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency or low achievement.”

Only 1.5 percent of vouchers are in special education in the Milwaukee program, compared to 19 percent of the students enrolled in public schools.

In the District of Columbia, 21.6 percent of those families who reject vouchers did so because the private school options lacked the special needs services that their children needed. Significantly, 12.3% of students who accepted vouchers but then withdrew, cited a lack of special needs services as the reason for leaving.

Only one-third of voucher schools accepted students with severe disabilities in the Cleveland vouchers program.

As the New York Times has reported, some Georgia schools funded through tuition tax credits ban LGBT students, students suspected of being LGBT or even students who support LGBT people.

Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Vouchers.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup and PDK, 70 percent of Americans oppose private school vouchers — the highest level of opposition to vouchers ever recorded in this survey.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Can Louisiana's teacher evaluations be trusted?

In Louisiana’s topsy-turvy world of teacher evaluations, over half of the teachers in one of the state’s highest-rated schools are on a fast track to dismissal. In this article, teacher/researcher Herb Bassett raises interesting questions about the process.

by Herb Bassett
State Superintendent John White showed his true colors when he recently praised four FirstLine charter schools that "fell in the top 10 percent of Louisiana schools in terms of improving test scores, yet ranked fewer than 10 percent of their teachers highly effective.

'Amazing results,' he wrote."

He did not mention that one of the four schools, while ranked in the 99th percentile of improvement, declared 68 percent of its teachers Ineffective. Most of its teachers are now on a fast track to dismissal.

In each of the other three schools, at least 69 percent of their Value-added Assessment Model (VAM) teachers ranked Highly Effective, but none received an observation rating of Highly Effective. Not one.

If the VAM computer model ranked so many teachers Highly Effective, why could the principals not find at least one example of Highly Effective teaching in an observation?

These results clearly do not reflect student achievement or teacher quality. They deserve condemnation, not praise.

What does this bode for teachers and students on the coming Common Core assessments? White has predicted that due to the "rigor" of the new standards, achievement scores will go down.

As strange as it seems, teachers will not see lower ratings under VAM - even with the dramatic drop predicted for student scores. The VAM computer model simply ranks the teachers from highest to lowest. No matter whether the scores rise or drop dramatically, there will always be a bottom ten percent ranked Ineffective and a top twenty percent ranked Highly Effective. These quotas were set by the Louisiana Department of Education. Yes, the Department arbitrarily decided that ten percent of teachers are Ineffective and twenty percent should be Highly Effective.

Then why does the Compass Report show that only four percent of all teachers are Ineffective?

The computer model does not rank all teachers. The majority of teachers are not subject to the quotas. The purpose of the Compass Report was to show the discrepancy, and to coerce evaluators of the non-VAM teachers into matching the VAM system quotas.

White, however, seems to relish the thought of evaluations that cut short the quota for Highly Effective teachers.

Superintendent White now controls the cut-off scores for the achievement levels on the new assessments. Having seen him praise unjustifiably low teacher evaluations, should parents trust him to decide whether their children pass or fail the new assessments?