At the risk of sounding like one of those freaky conspiracists who wear tinfoil hats and insist we never really landed on the moon, recent events in the state of Michigan have a familiar—and ominous—ring.
The creation of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in that state is eerily akin to Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) and certainly lends support to the theory that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is behind a national move to turn public schools into for-profit corporate entities with little or no public accountability.
We will return to the Michigan developments presently but first, some background.
The combination of vouchers, charters and computer courses are being promoted by the administration at the expense of public education funding—again, with no accountability built into the so-called “reforms.”
The RSD, which pre-dates the voucher and online courses, for a time was under the leadership void of Paul Vallas, then under equally inept State Superintendent John White and most recently under Patrick Dobard. No matter who heads it up, the RSD has proved a smashing failure and a gaping dark hole into which state revenues seem to vanish.
Vallas, during his tenure, took a state vehicle on personal business to Chicago on more than 30 occasions. On one of those trips, he appeared on a Chicago television station where he announced that he would run for mayor. He never became a candidate and the personal use of the state vehicle for the out-of-state trips was not discovered until he wrecked the vehicle in Chicago.
He also hired cronies from his previous tenures at education departments in Chicago and Philadelphia.
State audits of the RSD have turned up numerous irregularities and there were problems with a private transportation company receiving payment for busing students for the district. The RSD received still another black eye over reports of sexual activity between students at the school, prolonged teacher absences from classrooms (classes reported went unsupervised for weeks at a time) and chargers of attempted bribery. The LDOE official who reported the incidents and his supervisor were summarily fired.
And now comes a report by an outfit called Research on Reforms that reveals that each of the 12 RSD-New Orleans direct-run schools and 38 (79 percent) of the 48 RSD-New Orleans charter schools received 2012 school performance scores (SPS) of “D” or “F.”
The precise definition of a “failing school,” however, has remained in a state of flux since 2005, says the report, entitled Recovery School District in New Orleans: National Model for Reform or District in Academic Crisis.
“The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) has continuously revised its definition and labels of ‘failing’ schools to the extent that it is difficult to follow the real progress of any school historically,” it said. “It is imperative that the reader visit the historical state legislative actions that resulted in the creation of the RSD-NO and the disenfranchisement of the citizens in New Orleans in order to determine whether or not the RSD has failed in its commitment to public school students in New Orleans.”
And now Jindal’s education reform packages are tied up in state and federal courts.
In Tangipahoa Parish, a federal judge has already ruled against the state in a lawsuit that could be a precursor to legal problems for the entire Jindal education package passed earlier this year by the legislature.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that Acts 1 and 2 of the 2012 legislative session were in violation of a desegregation consent decree currently in effect in Tangipahoa and could have implications for other districts in the state under similar orders.
Lemelle said the acts would “impair or impede” the parish’s ability to comply with federal desegregation laws and that more than 40 other school districts across the state that are under similar agreements could also be affected.
Education Department officials indicated the ruling will be appealed.
On Wednesday of this week, trial kicked off in 19th District Court in Baton Rouge in a lawsuit brought against LDOE by the state’s two largest teacher unions and dozens of local school boards.
The plaintiffs are claiming that Act 2, which created the school voucher system and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, which is the state’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) for funding public education, were unconstitutional.
The argue that the voucher system diverts local funds for purposes for which they were never approved by taxpayers and that the MFP resolution, approved on June 4, the last day of the session, failed to obtained the constitutionally-mandated two-thirds vote because the resolution resulted in a “fiscal impact,” which requires a two-thirds vote.
House Speaker Chuck “the Eunuch” Kleckley (R-Lake Charles) and state attorney Jimmy Faircloth maintain there was no fiscal impact, thus allowing for passage by a simple majority of members present and voting. For the full 105-member House, 53 votes are required for a simple majority. A two-thirds majority would require 70 of 105 votes.
The Legislative Fiscal Office, which is charged with reviewing legislative bills for fiscal impact, disagreed, saying there was a fiscal impact, which reinforced plaintiffs’ arguments.
The resolution passed 51-49, a simple majority of the 100 members present and voting. Sixty-seven votes would have been needed for a two-thirds vote.
There are a couple of interesting twists in the voucher lawsuit in state district court. Faircloth, who is representing the state, contributed $1,000 on Oct. 24 to Judge Kelley’s unsuccessful campaign for the State Supreme Court.
Kelley, meanwhile, is married to Angele Davis, who served as Jindal’s commissioner of administration for the first two and one-half years of his administration.
All of which brings us back to our conspiracy involving the state of Michigan specifically and any number of states in general that either have implemented or are attempting to implement similar programs.
Rob Glass, Superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools, it not waiting for the axe to fall; he has issued a call to action to fight pending legislation that would put into place programs strikingly similar to those currently the subject of litigation here in Louisiana.
The legislative proposals in Michigan have prompted critics to ask if that state’s EAA is establishing “a statewide school reform district on the fast track?” That same question is now being raised in Louisiana but unlike Michigan, it is being asked here in hindsight.
The observation Glass made to LouisianaVoice on Thursday is even more to the point: “There is no question in my mind that this is all part of the ALEC game plan. What we’re seeing in Michigan either has been played out or is being played out in other states and the proposals in all the states are identical,” he said.
The demographic profile of Bloomfield Hills is in stark contrast to that of New Orleans and most of Louisiana.
Bloomfield Hills is a city located in the heart of metro Detroit’s affluent northern suburbs in Oakland County. Located 20 miles northwest of downtown Detroit, the city, with a population of less than 4,000, has consistently ranked as one of the five wealthiest cities in the U.S. with comparable populations. Its median family income in excess of $200,000 per year is the highest of any city outside California, Florida or Virginia.
“If we do not take immediate action, I believe great damage will be done to public education, including our school system,” Glass said in his Nov. 28 call to action. “We have just three weeks to take action before it’s too late,” he said of four bills pending in the current legislative session in Michigan.
The bills are:
• House Bill 6004 and Senate Bill 1358 would expand the EAA, presently consisting of 15 Detroit schools, to a statewide system overseen by a chancellor appointed by the governor and which would function outside the authority of the State Board of Education of state school superintendent. “These schools are exempt from the same laws and quality measures of community-governed public schools,” Glass said. “The EAA can seize unused school buildings (built and financed by local taxpayers) and force sale or lease to charter, non-public or EAA schools.”
• House Bill 5923 would create several new forms of charter and online schools with no limit on the number, many of which would be created by EAA. “Public schools are not allowed to create these new schools unless they charter them,” Glass said. “Selective enrollment/dis-enrollment policies will likely lead to greater segregation in our public schools. This bill creates new schools without changing the overall funding available, further diluting resources for community-governed public schools.”
• Senate Bill 620 known as the “Parent Trigger” bill, this would allow the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools to be converted to a charter school while allowing parents or teachers to petition for the desired reform model. “This bill…disenfranchises voters, ends their local control and unconstitutionally hands taxpayer-owned property over to for-profit companies,” he said. “Characterized as parent-empowerment, this bill does little to develop deep, community-wide parent engagement and organization.”
Glass said he has never considered himself a conspiracy theorist—until now. “This package of bills is the latest in a year-long barrage of ideologically-driven bills designed to weaken and defund locally-controlled public education, handing scarce taxpayer dollars over to for-profit entities operating under a different set of rules,” he said. “I believe this is fundamentally wrong.”
He said that he, State School Superintendent Mike Flanagan and State Board of Education President John Austin, along with the Detroit Free Press, have expressed various concerns about the bills.
“This is not a laissez faire plea to defend the status quo (a favorite accusation leveled at educators by Jindal). This is about making sure this tidal wave of untested legislation does not sweep away the valued programs our local community has proudly built into its cherished school system,” Glass said.
A familiar and ominous ring indeed…