EDITOR’S NOTE: LouisianaVoice traditionally addresses state political events as they occur. Our posts generally run between 1,000 and 1,500 words in length. Recently, however, attorney Nancy Picard, a Metairie law firm partner, submitted the following 4,000-word essay that examines the complicated, confusing and controversial odyssey of Louisiana public education policy since Hurricane Katrina. We found her research to be so thorough and the topic so timely, that we felt it imperative that we run her essay, despite its length, with only minimal editing.
Following is her guest column:
Louisiana’s Great Education Giveaway
By NANCY PICARD
A writer recently hailed federal and state education reform as a new civil rights movement. But the word reform, which means “the improvement . . . of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory,” can hardly be applied to the recent changes in educational law. Most of these changes are not for the better. Instead, they create a separate and wholly unequal educational system masquerading as choice, which serves to destabilize and discredit public schools in the name of improvement and to make state funds accessible to a wide range of individuals and corporations with little or no oversight.
This article examines recent legislation that dramatically expanded state takeover of schools after Hurricane Katrina, shows how the changes are contrary to educational research on effective schools, and points to some examples of schools and programs gone awry under this new regime.
The First Steps: The State Changes the Educational Landscape
Before Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature adopted the No Child Left Behind testing regimen and statutes allowing for the establishment of charter schools. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) requires states to develop and assess basic skills of all students at select grade levels in order for those school districts to receive federal funding.
Schools must make adequate yearly progress in test scores or face serious consequences, including being publicly labeled a school “in need of improvement,” being required to replace school staff, being turned into a charter school, or being run by a private company or the state office of education.
The Louisiana Legislature had also established the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over five schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) based on their poor test scores. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, before the RSD takeover of these schools could be evaluated, state officials pushed for much more sweeping changes.
The Great Takeover: The New Orleans Public Schools in Post-Katrina Louisiana
The 2005-06 school year had begun and 59,000 students were attending OPSB schools; it had an operating budget of $418 million and employed more than 7,000 employees. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. On September 27, 2005, State School Superintendent Cecil Picard wrote to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) requesting federal policy waivers and federal funding for charter schools. Governor Blanco signed an Executive Order suspending provisions of Title 17 that would have prevented the rapid expansion of charter schools.
After Katrina, the OPSB located available teachers and planned to re-open 52 schools, but state officials did not support this plan. Instead, the Louisiana Legislature enacted Act 35, which provided for automatic transfer of failing schools to the RSD where the school was in a district deemed academically in crisis.
Academically in crisis was defined as any local system in which more than 30 schools are academically unacceptable or more than 50% of its students attend schools that are academically unacceptable. Whereas in August 2005, a School Performance Score (SPS) of 60 was designated passing, after Hurricane Katrina, the passing score increased to 87.5. What had been considered a passing score was now deemed unacceptable. As a result of Act 35, and the changing SPS standard, the RSD took over 102 of the 126 OPSB schools, bringing the RSD total from five before Katrina to 107 schools after. The SPS reverted to 60 again in 2010.
Despite available certified OPSB teachers, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) advertised nationally for teachers, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved a contract with Teach For America (TFA) to train and place 125 TFA members in under-resourced public schools in Greater New Orleans and Southern Louisiana.
Although the state had represented to the DOE that it needed funds to pay salaries and benefits of out-of-work school employees, and received more than $500 million to do so, none of the money was used to pay OPSB teachers. Instead, the funds were diverted to the RSD, while the state actively recruited out-of-state employees, offering signing bonuses and housing allowances as high as $17,500.
By the end of that year, OPSB was operating only five schools and nine charters, and because the money follows the child, OPSB was without funds to pay teachers. All OPSB employees were notified that they would be terminated, and would not be allowed to transfer to the charters.
A Taste for Money and Power
The post-Katrina takeover of New Orleans schools gave the state a taste of funds formerly controlled by the OPSB and whetted its appetite for more. Since 2005, the RSD has continued to expand into low economic areas throughout the state. As of the 2011-12 school year, the RSD directly oversees schools in Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Caddo, St. Helena, and Pointe Coupe Parishes.
Especially disturbing is the St. Helena case where the RSD took over the middle school and refused to return it to local control despite failing to achieve the gains of St. Helena‘s locally-controlled elementary and high schools.14 Twenty more schools throughout the state are currently at risk of being taken over by the RSD.
The RSD, which started in part to keep underperforming schools from falling through the cracks in an overburdened school system, has now grown to a statewide school district with all the same challenges but without local input.
Moreover, in the last two years, the legislature has imposed more draconian requirements on public schools and teachers, while making more funding available to individuals and non-public schools without the same mandates or accountability standards. Rather than help public schools improve, the changes have the effect of discrediting them. For example, legislation changed the procedures for evaluating public school teachers, effective for 2012-13, requiring that 50 percent of a teacher‘s evaluation be based on evidence of growth in student achievement using a value added (VA) assessment model.
Then, on March 23, 2012, at the end of a grueling session, the Louisiana Legislature rushed the passage of two more bills—Acts 1 and 2—with little time allotted for examination or debate. Act 1 only grants tenure to teachers who attain a highly effective evaluation rating for five out of six years, and removes tenure already granted for any year that the teacher is evaluated as ineffective.
Act 1 substitutes a hearing before the local school board with a hearing before a panel comprised of a teacher, a principal and a superintendent designee that must take place within seven days, and after the formerly tenured teacher is terminated. Now, although the new evaluation procedure has never even been fully implemented, teachers may be terminated based on either low student test scores or a disgruntled principal‘s evaluation despite previous years of stellar performance or extenuating circumstances.
Act 2 imposed sweeping changes to education funding, the state‘s charter school system, and the responsibilities of BESE. The Act provided for zero interest loans to charter schools and scholarships for students to attend non-public schools. These scholarships are provided in part from the MFP, previously used exclusively for public education.
Act 2 created independent charter authorizers empowered to authorize charter schools, further removing state and local oversight from the chartering process. Charter schools, not the parish school board, are responsible for directly administering their own budgets.
Finally, Act 2 increased BESE‘s responsibilities exponentially. BESE can now transfer any school in the state to the RSD under certain conditions and is now responsible for overseeing all school boards, charter boards, charter authorizers, online educators, and home-school educators, concentrating power in the hands of one state authority, removed from local control.
The Reckoning: Measuring Education Legislation against the Research
Educational research does not support the changes being implemented with such haste. Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, initially supported NCLB, but now criticizes the draconian penalties imposed on schools for failing to reach unrealistic goals.
She also explains why the promise of charter schools has not been fulfilled. Most studies of charter schools show that they vary widely in quality and reflect no more gains than public schools. Further, as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enroll fewer disabled and disadvantaged students. Their higher graduation rates often reflect very high attrition due to “counseling out” the lowest performing students. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. This is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.
In their most recent book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, experts on the subject of school reform, summarize the research on successful versus failed school reform efforts.25 Among the failed ―solutions they identify the following ―silver bullets:
• Closing down all the bad schools fails because the vast majority of students end up in other non-performing schools now farther from home.
• Importing ―smart and inexpensive teachers fails because most of these teachers move on after a few years, leaving instability in schools that need stability most.
• Replacing principals whose schools have poor testing results fails because it leaves poverty-stricken schools with more short-term leadership which, again, leads to more instability.
• Relentless timelines for continuous yearly improvement in test scores fails because such improvements are simply unsustainable.
• Focusing on charter schools fails because though exceptional charters change a few lives others rely on ―skim[ming] the best students and teachers from the top, and leav[ing] out students with the most challenging disabilities, or have no system to support students when they get into trouble.
• Performance-based evaluation of teachers fails because it uses measurements of students‘ growth purportedly to reward the best teachers and get rid of the ―worst based on the fallacies that we can solve our problems by substituting bad people with good ones and by over-relying on a narrow range of performance measures.
These ―silver bullets make for ―slick political promises but are based on incorrect assumptions about what directs sustainable school change; and yet they have all been enshrined in Louisiana. For example, the idea of rewarding and terminating teachers based only upon student test results is based on the false assumption that measuring students‘ gains on test scores reflects teachers‘ effectiveness.
But research shows that gains in student achievement are influenced by many factors besides the teacher. A teacher may have very high scores with one class and not another or in one year and not another, regardless of teaching techniques, or show higher scores but be less effective in attaining long-run achievement.
So a teacher, for example, could prepare students for a single year-end test, but neglect areas which would better prepare students for the next grade level. Veteran teachers have been dismissed based on scores who have also been voted teacher of the year and rated as exceeding expectations by supervisors. When teachers cannot identify the relationship between what they do in the classroom and their ratings, they become frustrated and demoralized.
The State Giveth: The Push to Privatize
If eliminating teachers based on faulty evaluations is not good for teachers or students, why would such a program be rushed through the legislature with lightning speed? One reason might be that testing is a growing industry, and testing companies exert an influence on legislation. Pearson, the world‘s largest for-profit education business, has a $32 million five-year contract to produce New York‘s standardized tests and a half billion dollar five-year testing contract with Texas.
Meanwhile, closer to home, a Minnesota company, Data Recognition Corp., has more than $93 million in LDOE contracts. Louisiana has a second contract for testing with the California company, Pacific Metrics, for $39.8 million.
This year more than 155,000 public school students in grades eight, nine, and 10 will take new tests—called EXPLORE and PLAN—designed to help students improve their performance on the ACT, a test of college readiness, which now almost all high school juniors will be required to take at state expense.
At least one-third of Louisiana’s entering high school students operate below the basic level in reading, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, and funding for Louisiana‘s colleges and universities has been slashed, but the state is requiring and paying for large numbers of high school students to take college admission tests.
Testing companies are not the only ones enjoying Louisiana‘s largess. Louisiana currently has 70 contracts worth more than $1 million each and totaling $282 million; most of these contracts go to out-of-state contractors and are monitored by the LDOE.
The RSD entered a $10.5 million contract with an Illinois company, Durham School Services, to provide bus transportation and another $500,000 to a Missouri company, Transpar Group, to design bus routes and provide oversight. In July 2012, Durham sent lay-off notices to about 200 bus drivers and monitors because the RSD owed the company $7.2 million.
Educational service companies are promoted by ideologically driven lobbying organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which gained notoriety for providing the model for Florida’s Stand Your Ground legislation. ALEC has as members some 2000 state legislators and corporate executives. From 2001 through 2010, ALEC companies spent more than $3 million in Louisiana political campaigns, including almost $132,000 to Governor Jindal.
ALEC drafts model bills on topics ranging from privatizing prisons, to toughening voter ID laws, encouraging privately-owned pensions, and opposing environmental regulation. In 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy, released an extensive archive of ALEC‘s model amendments. The model legislation often advances the economic interest of member corporations. For example, the chief executive officer of Data Recognition—a big Louisiana testing contractor—has been a member of ALEC‘s leadership network.
ALEC‘s model education legislation includes privatizing education through vouchers, scholarships, charters, and tax incentives to businesses and individuals that furnish scholarships to private school; increasing public school testing and reporting; increasing access to all facets of education by private entities and corporations; and reducing the influence of democratically-elected local school boards and school districts.
The ALEC model legislation should sound familiar, because it is now Louisiana law.
“Silver Bullets” Line Some Pockets with Gold
Louisiana now funds so many programs that one must question whether those with access are spending it appropriately. These entities include charter schools, private schools with public scholarships or vouchers, and recipients of course providers funding. Some 45 different charter school boards that manage their own budgets now govern what was once overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board.
The proliferation of charter schools and vouchers throughout the state exponentially increases the opportunity for waste, graft, and theft. In 2008-09, the financial manager of a New Orleans charter school embezzled $660,000 from the school.
Nor is it clear who is monitoring the curriculum and the teaching that is taking place in all of these separate entities. For example, a nonprofit organization, Pelican Education Foundation, ran a charter school, Abramson Science & Technology High School in New Orleans East and Kenilworth Service and Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge. The state revoked Pelican‘s charter for Abramson after a number of allegations surfaced about the school:
• that the school was not serving special education students;
• that a teacher provided a more winnable science project to a student in place of the project that the student himself had prepared;
• that the teacher for its Turkish language class, disappeared from the classroom for months; and the school tried to bribe—through an executive of a Turkish-run business associated with the school—an Education Department official who had investigated some of the complaints.
The charter was revoked only after the Times-Picayune pressed for public records.
Pelican appears to have ties with the Cosmos Foundation, the largest charter operator in Texas, and similarly founded by Turkish educators and businessmen, and with Gulen, a movement started by a Turkish religious scholar. Cosmos schools have come under scrutiny for importing teachers from Turkey and favoring Turkish business contractors for everything from large construction to small vendors selling school lunches, uniforms and web design.
In Georgia, publicly financed charter schools tied to the Turkish Gulen movement came under scrutiny when they defaulted on bonds and an audit found the schools had improperly granted hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to businesses connected to people committed to the Gulen movement.
Because charters are independent entities, students are left in the lurch when things go awry. Schools can be chartered for a five-year period. After year three, depending on student test scores, they may be told that their charters will terminate after year five. News that Sojourner Truth Academy in New Orleans was closing created an exodus of faculty and students. Students were left with the Hobson‘s choice of attending classes without teachers or transferring to other schools that would require them to repeat the year.
In its last year, Sojourner Truth lost over 20 faculty members. Student transfers lead to a budget crunch because schools receive per pupil funding. Locked into rental and service contracts, Sojourner Truth made drastic spending cuts. Paper towels in bathrooms became a luxury. Students reported a breakdown in discipline, and de facto free periods because qualified teachers could not be found to teach classes. A college-bound student reported not know[ing] any science or what fine arts is.
According to data published by the LDOE, in 2009-2010, almost 28 percent of the Recovery School District teachers were first year teachers as compared to less than 11 percent statewide. The RSD has been in a constant state of flux since its inception, taking over schools and then turning many into charters, each time with a change of faculty. This constant turnover means instability for students who can least afford it.
Now more public funds will flow not only to charters, but also to private schools. Act 2 expands the Student Scholarship for Educational Excellence Program allowing for 5,000 more students to move public school funding to private schools. This year taxpayers will spend approximately $12 million on vouchers. But while the accountability for public schools and teachers increased, there is little to none for the private schools receiving this public money.
The New Living Word School in Ruston topped of the state‘s voucher list, offering the most voucher seats in 2012-13—315—of any school. It was eventually awarded fewer vouchers after several news articles raised questions about the school. But in the prior school year, New Living Word enrolled only 122 students in a limited facility and taught mainly through DVDs.
Even if it ultimately receives fewer than requested, it will operate mostly with public funds, but still be considered private, with no obligation to hold public meetings to report how funds are spent and no consequences if its students fail to measure up.
Other small schools that were provisionally approved for vouchers have had their approval revoked but only after news reports raised questions about them. For example, the Alexandria Town Talk reported that a small school in Deridder, BeauVer Christian Academy, had experienced financial problems in prior incarnations, including liens and financial judgments. An agent and an officer of the limited liability company were convicted of issuing worthless checks.
In New Orleans, more than 24 private schools take part in the expanded voucher program. According to the Times-Picayune, the schools that enrolled voucher students last school year drew 37 percent of their students through vouchers, and voucher students made up more than 60 percent of the student body at some schools.
Like New Living Word, some will dramatically expand their student bodies through vouchers. For example, Life of Christ Christian Academy has 91 new seats available for vouchers which will more than double the enrollment, almost one-third of whom came from the voucher program last year.
Of the voucher students last year, only 13 percent were at grade level on standardized tests. At Upper Room Bible Church Academy, only 24percent of its voucher students met grade level last year; it could now receive almost $1 million in voucher funds. Yet these schools will not be publicly disparaged with labels of C, D, or failing like public schools based on their test results, so parents may move from one failing school to another, without knowing.
The greatest giveaway of all may be through the Louisiana Course Choice Program, which, according to the LDOE‘s website, will create Course Choice with per-course funding and multiple provider course delivery, creating access to unprecedented educational opportunities for tens of thousands of Louisiana students. It will also create an unprecedented bonanza for individuals to deplete funds that would otherwise go to public schools.
Course providers include business associations, educational entrepreneurs, and online courses. This program will not just serve impoverished students and students in schools rated ineffective, but also the full spectrum of students currently enrolled in Louisiana schools, including non-public and home schooled students.
The per-course tuition was to be taken from the Minimum Foundation Program, with the LDOE transferring funds from the city or parish school system in which the student resides to the authorized course provider. To be clear, these are not extra state funds, but funds allotted to public schools for educating public school students, but being diverted to a variety of course providers for the benefit of home schooled and private school students—until a Baton Rouge district court judge ruled such manipulation of MFP funds unconstitutional.
Highly ranked public schools in Louisiana are those that either have admissions standards limiting who can attend or are located in high income areas; while those ranked at the bottom are those in impoverished areas or areas in which the school population is impoverished because of high middle class attendance at private schools.
“A” and “B” schools did not start out as “failing” or “D” schools and work their way up; they started out with high rankings because of their school populations. There is no evidence that using simplistic measures to test and label schools and teachers helps them improve their delivery of education services to children. On the other hand, considerable evidence suggests that these labels only erode confidence in the schools among the public and the children who attend them and demoralize teachers.
Allowing a few students from impoverished public schools the “choice” to attend a different school does nothing for the vast majority of students remaining except to reduce their funding. Nor is there evidence that the “A” and “B” schools are doing a better job with the students they have, rather than enrolling students who are themselves doing a better job.
All students can learn and succeed and we should all commit to their doing so. But we must recognize that some students—those who live in areas of higher unemployment and crime, whose parents never finished high school, let alone college, and whose parents are working two jobs to pay the light bill—need the dedication and cooperation of all concerned toward educational problem-solving, not political rhetoric and blame.
There are no easy solutions. Unfortunately, political rhetoric has eliminated sound educational theory and testing has been substituted for teaching. Pointing the finger at individual teachers and principals is simplistic and self-defeating as is pointing the finger at one school or another. The teacher is the key but this does not mean that we should focus on getting and rewarding or punishing individual teachers.
We need to dedicate ourselves to extending what is working to the entire system and problem-solving what is not. But tossing around public school funds like so many Mardi Gras beads is irresponsible, short-sighted, and an evasion of our responsibility to educate all citizens.