Copies of emails released to LouisianaVoice by the Department of Education (DOE) under threat of litigation reveal an agency over which there is little or no oversight, where escalating costs of expensive programs appear to be of no concern to administrators and a department that appears to be flailing about in search of some direction.
The electronic communications also unveil a cozy relationship between DOE, Rupert Murdoch and his company, News Corp., which apparently will be provided personal information on Louisiana public school students for use by a company affiliated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
News Corp. is the parent company of Fox News Network. In 2011, News Corp. was implicated in a major phone hacking scandal in which private telephone records were compromised.
Despite the relationship with a national news organization, the emails also reveal a decision by DOE and Dave “Lefty” Lefkowith, director of the Office of Portfolio, to “forget” about communicating with the media or public about departmental plans to launch the DOE’s Course Choice program next month.
Lefkowith has a professional history that links him to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the now-defunct Enron Corp. and an outfit called Azurix Corp., through which a Bush appointee—with help from Lefkowith—sought unsuccessfully to corner the market on Florida drinking water and to auction blocks of water to the highest bidders.
As director of the Office of Portfolio at $146,000 per year, he is in charge of the course choice program whereby private contractors and public institutions will be allowed to offer—and set the prices for— computer courses to Louisiana students.
On Jan. 2 of this year, White emailed Lefkowith at 6:19 p.m., writing:
“How we doing on communications? We have a huge launch in two months.”
“We just decided amongst ourselves: ‘Forget it,’” Lefkowith responded an hour later, at 7:20 p.m. “Problem with that?”
“Fair,” White responded one minute later.
But at 6:53 p.m., 34 minutes after White’s email to Lefkowith and 27 minutes before Lefkowith’s response, White emailed Ken Bradford, assistant superintendent for the department’s Office of Content: “Okay. Time to start the blitz, as we roll up to launch.”
There are other curious emails, including one on July 18, 2012 to White from his $145,000-a-year Chief of Staff Kunjan Narechania which touched on a variety of subjects:
“We need to talk about what to do with David,” she wrote in apparent reference to Lefkowith who joined the department two days after that email was written. It would appear from her comment that even though White had decided to bring Lefkowith, who had been working as a contract consultant, onboard full time, he was still unsure in what capacity Lefkowith would serve.
In another paragraph, Narechania said, “Charlotte Danielson (the Danielson Group of Princeton, N.J., an organization of consultants on educational practice, leadership and research) is being a pain again. Apparently some reporter interviewed her about us using a version of her rubric for our system. She said she thinks it’s a bad idea for us to use an abridged version of her rubric and that we should have piloted for a year. So lame.”
Attempts to contact Danielson were initially unsuccessful but she returned a call Wednesday evening to express surprise at the content of the email and to explain that the Louisiana DOE cherry-picked only a few components of her teacher evaluation system. “No one likes to be called names and I’m no exception,” she said. “I don’t know what they mean by referring to be as ‘a pain,’ or as ‘lame.’”
She explained that her organization specializes in the design of teacher evaluation systems. “We have 22 components to our rubric,” she said. “I understand the Louisiana Department of Education used only about five components. While I have no idea which components they used, I can say that you cannot draw a reasonable conclusion from using only a few components.”
Less than three weeks before Narechania’s email critical of Danielson, Erin Bendily, assistant deputy superintendent for departmental support and former education policy adviser to Gov. Bobby Jindal emailed White:
“I think we need to start with a very strong introduction and embed more CCSS (Common Core State Standards) alignment/integration throughout. This sounds harsh, but we should show that our current/old educator evaluation system is crap and the new system is stellar.”
A paragraph that could attract considerable attention among the media was one that said, “We’re going to send the TimesPic (New Orleans Times-Picayune) reporter to a Monday/Tuesday training in NOLA (New Orleans, LA).”
The reporter was not identified nor was there any explanation on what “training” would be provided—or if the reporter was simply being sent to cover in-house DOE training. If the latter was the case, it would nevertheless seem unusual for a state agency to assign or “send” an otherwise independent news reporter to cover an event held under its auspices.
It was the spate of emails scattered throughout the 119 pages of documents referencing the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC), a project of the Gates Foundation, however, that provided the link between the department and Murdoch and his News Corp. operation. Those emails confirmed the department’s intent to enter sensitive student and teacher information into a massive electronic data bank being built by Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of News Corp.
“Over the next few months, the Gates Foundation plans to turn over all this personal data to another, as yet unnamed corporation, headed by Iwan Streichenberger, former marketing director of a(n) (Atlanta) company called Promethean that sells whiteboard,” according to a news release by Class Size Matters, http://www.classsizematters.org/ a non-profit organization that advocates for class size reduction of New York City’s public schools.
Class Size Matters last month released a copy of a 68-page contract between SLC and the New York State Educational Department which said in part that there would be no guarantee that data would not be susceptible to intrusion or hacking, though “reasonable and appropriate measures” would be taken to protect information.
The Gates contract also allows for the unrestricted subcontracting of duties and obligations covered under the agreement.
Class Size Matters, in an internet posting last month, said besides New York, Phase I of SLC included school districts in North Carolina, Illinois, Colorado and Massachusetts.
“Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana are in Phase II, according to the Gates Foundation, (and) intend to start piloting the system in 2013,” Class Size Matters said. http://www.classsizematters.org/ny-8-other-states-plan-to-share-confidential-student-info-without-parental-consent/
As recently as 13 months ago, however, White professed ignorance of any move toward participating in the SLC program.
A Jan. 21, 2012 email to state school superintendents that included an invitation to an SLC “cross-state convening” prompted an inter-agency email from Jessica Tucker, DOE policy advisor, to White which asked, “Do we participate in this for real?”
“Ok, I know what it is,” White responded 90 minutes later, “but I don’t know if we are really invested since I haven’t heard anyone mention it.”
White, meanwhile, deleted Tucker’s name and immediately forwarded that same email to Vicky Thomas, a DOE executive assistant who responded the following day, a Sunday:
“Yes, the DOE is participating in this. I’m not sure if we are part of Phase I or II, but Erin & Jim Wilson (DOE chief information officer) have been working on this through the Gates Foundation. Paul did not attend these kinds of things, but would send staff.”
Erin and Paul were not immediately identified by last name or by title.
Despite White’s disavowal of any knowledge of SLC, an email exchange three months earlier, in September of 2011, when White still had not been formally appointed State Superintendent by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), would seem to indicate otherwise.
At 7:42 p.m. on Sept. 8, 2011, Peter Gorman, only a month into his new position as senior vice president of Wireless Generation, the newly-formed education division of News Corp., emailed White:
“If you are available for dinner on Wednesday night, I would love to take you and discuss Broad (presumably the Broad Superintendents Academy where White trained to become an education superintendent in 2010), school reform and other issues but no pressure on that either. I know how precious an evening with family, time at the gym, or just a little down time can be to recharge your batteries.”
White responded at 9:49 a.m.:
“Dude—you are my recharger! Dinner it is, of course. Then let’s visit some schools Thursday. I’m really looking forward to it.”
All of which brings us to this one simple question:
Is this flurry of email activity somehow related to a comment by Murdoch in 2010 on the enormous business opportunity in public education awaiting corporate America:
“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S.”?
Perhaps this is a question that legislators should be asking.