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“…My purpose is to dismantle the dismantlers. As such, my words are not kind. My words expose, and that exposure is harsh. The individuals and organizations profiled in this book have declared war on my profession, and I take that personally.”

 

—Mercedes Schneider, writing in the introduction to her book A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education.

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A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of America’s Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 404 pages) is a new book by St. Tammany Parish high school English teacher Mercedes Schneider that should be required reading by both proponents and opponents of the current drift in education from public to private, from non-profit availability to all students to for-profit institutions available to the select few.

Before we get too far into our review of this book, there are two things you should know about Mercedes Schneider:

  • The emphasis is on the first syllable of Mer’ Ce-deez; she’s not a car, nor was she named for one.
  • Don’t ever make the mistake of trying to schmooze her with B.S., especially when it comes to issues involving public education. She will call you out the same way she called out an ill-prepared Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President (BESE) Chas Roemer following his debate with Diane Ravitch in March of 2013. Ravitch had already run circles around Roemer in their debate and he was simply no match for Schneider in the question-and-answer session that followed. It would have been comical had it not been for the position of such serious responsibility conferred upon Roemer by voters in his BESE district.

And when she does call you out, that caustic and at the same time, delightful St. Bernard Parish accent comes shining through like a lighthouse beacon slicing through a foggy night.

The publisher of an education online blog called At the Chalk Fence, She has moved her debate from her ongoing fight with Gov. Bobby Jindal and Superintendent of Education John White to a national forum and is now calling out such self-proclaimed education experts as former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, whom she calls “the viral host of the corporate reform agenda,” Teach for America (TFA) founder Wendy Kopp, disgraced Washington, D.C. school chancellor and later founder of StudentsFirst Michelle Rhee, vagabond school reformer and former Superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) Paul Vallas, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the “Big Three Foundations: Gates, Walton and Broad.”

A thorn in the side of Jindal, White, and Roemer of long-standing, she turns her attention to the national educational debate in Chronicle. With an appropriate nod to Ravitch as her mentor and the one who was always available when needed for advice, Schneider peppers her targets with a barrage of statistics that refute the unrealistic theories advanced by the Waltons, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and TFA who insist meaningful education reform can be accomplished with inexperienced teachers and administrators, for-profit charters, vouchers, and the idea that throwing money at a problem is not the answer (despite their propensity to pour billions of dollars into their own idealistic agendas—at best, a philosophical oxymoron).

A product of the St. Bernard Parish public schools (P.G.T. Beauregard High School), Schneider’s attempt to drop out of school at age 15 somehow morphed into a B.S. in secondary education (English and German), a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the State University of West Georgia, and a Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado.

She taught graduate-level statistics and research courses at Ball State University. It was at Ball State that she first took on the task of challenging the issues related to No Child Left Behind, teaching students “how bad an idea it was to attempt to measure teacher performance using student standardized test scores.”

In July 2007, only months before the election of Jindal as governor, she returned home and began a new job teaching high school English in St. Tammany parish.

Her introduction contains a brilliant metaphor for the corporate destruction of public education: she describes what she calls a “detailed image” of an abandoned building being imploded and collapsing upon itself. She envisions the building (public education), “not ornate, not without need for repairs, but sturdy,” as men in yellow hard hats (corporate reformers, we are told) watch, knowing what is about to transpire “because they have orchestrated it from the inside.” She describes the men as “responsible for the impending structural failure” and “who have planned the failure but are removed from its consequences.”

In her blog, she recently launched a withering attack on White’s embargo of the LEAP summary public report, saying the state superintendent had “apparently found himself in an unfamiliar fix regarding his characteristic ‘water muddying.’” She accused White of “collapsing” categories within the LEAP grading system in order to conceal variation through report “groupings” that she said concealed the precision of the standard five levels of LEAP achievement (unsatisfactory, approaching basic, basic, mastery, and advanced).

“Collapsing ‘basic,’ ‘mastery,’ and ‘advanced’ into a single, generic ‘passed’ serves to conceal achievement nuances that might make Louisiana Miracle RSD appear to be ‘less than’ locally-run districts—the ones operated by those pesky, traditional local school boards,” she said.

“After all, a test-score-deficient ‘miracle’ is harder to sell,” she said. “If the data reflect poorly on privatization, then the troubled corporate reformer could alter the data, or alter the reporting, or alter access to the reporting, or employ some combination of the three. Gotta love corporate reform ‘transparency.’”

Jindal, White and Roemer may heave a collective sigh of relief that they have been spared the glare of the spotlight in Chronicle as she concentrates her argument on the glaring weaknesses of the major education reform movers and shakers at the national level.

But perhaps they should not be too comfortable at being spared just yet.

After all, certain matter, they say, flows downhill.

A Chronicle of Echoes is a must read for anyone who is or ever claimed to be concerned about the perpetual political tampering with public education in America—by those least qualified to do so.

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If you think you’d like a novel about an industry that destroyed a state’s coastline and wetlands with impunity (while parking their fortunes in offshore bank accounts), then Hydrocarbon Hucksters is not for you.

If you like fiction about politicians who will do whatever it takes to get their hands on dirty campaign contributions, don’t bother reading this book. What Ernest Zebrowski and his niece, Mariah Zebrowski Leach, have written is not fantasy, not the product of fertile imaginations; it’s real.

If you already have high blood pressure you will not want to read about how ExxonMobil made $35 billion in profits in 2009 and filed a 24,000-page tax return showing it owed zero dollars in taxes.

You also probably would not want to know that Wall Street futures speculators, those suits who never owned so much as a gas can, are responsible for adding about 30 percent to the cost of a fill-up at the pump.

Inspired by the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent 4.9 million-gallon oil spill that devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines, Hydrocarbon Hucksters: Lessons from Louisiana on Oil, Politics, and Environmental Justice (University Press of Mississippi, 193 pages) is a new book scheduled to hit the bookshelves in early 2014 which takes an unflinchingly critical look at the sordid relationship between Louisiana politicians and the oil industry and how the state’s environment has paid a heavy price for that illicit romance.

The Zebrowskis are certain to rankle more than a few power brokers in Baton Rouge and on the corporate boards of major oil companies like ExxonMobil, BP, Marathon, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron.

Ernest Zebrowski of Baton Rouge, a former Southern University professor, collaborated with Ruston Ph.D. Judith Howard on the 2007 analytical study Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned from America’s Most Violent Hurricane (University of Michigan Press, 304 pages) a book that was as gripping as it was informative.

This book is unique in that it takes on giant corporations and high-profile politicians like Gov. Bobby Jindal, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, and President Barrack Obama without favoring one political party over another.

It tells, for example, of how Congressman Jindal backed renewable energy until he lost his 2003 bid for the governorship because oil and gas was not behind his campaign and how he converted and knelt at the altar of fossil fuel, became the industry’s darling and won in his second try in 2007. Jindal even called President Obama’s attempt to impose a 60-day moratorium on drilling in the outer continental shelf after Deepwater a “second disaster” on a par with the devastation of the oil spill itself—something of a stretch, to be sure.

It tells how Mary Landrieu took thousands of dollars in oil and gas money and defied Obama even though the moratorium affected only 33 projects in the Gulf (not a single oil-producing well in the Gulf was ever shut down) and even though only a few hundred jobs were in danger of being lost despite the claim of a federal district judge in New Orleans who ruled against the moratorium with the claim that it could eliminate up to 150,000 jobs.

(That same judge, by the way, failed to disclose that he had significant energy investments—an apparent conflict of interest that should have resulted in his recusing himself.)

The Zebrowskis also debunk certain claims about the negative effects of Obama’s proposed six-month moratorium on new outer continental shelf drilling; the share tax secrets about oil companies that they would rather you did not know, and reveal how the state’s elected officials depend on oil money and obligingly reciprocate with oil-friendly regulations.

The Zebrowskis, backed by painstaking research, take you on a 183-page historic tour of the petroleum industry in Louisiana that will leave you shaking your head in wonder that a state so rich in oil and natural gas could rank so high in poverty, so low in education and so smarmy in its political leadership. Republicans and Democrats alike are subjected to critique in Hydrocarbon Hucksters. No one is spared the Zebrowskis’ critical examination. Once you read Hydrocarbon Hucksters, you will never feel the same again when you fill your gas tank—about oil companies, Wall Street, Congress, or the Louisiana Legislature.

But the Zebrowskis don’t stop with simply criticizing oil companies, Wall Street and politicians. They offer solutions, however improbable it may be that any of them will ever be implemented as long as oil money flows. Among those proposed solutions:

  • Designate oil companies as public utilities, a step already taken in Canada and other countries, so as to regulate profits;
  • Ban speculative profiteering by Wall Street futures traders;
  • Require oil companies to restore the environment to its natural state;
  • Revise the corporate tax codes;
  • Get serious about the development of electric wind-powered, synthetic and hydrogen-based energy;
  • Develop high-speed electric rail mass transit projects as an alternative to air travel;
  • Expand recycling.

At least one of these, a high-speed rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was already attempted but rejected by Gov. Bobby Jindal who spurned a federal grant to fund the project over the objections of Baton Rouge business leaders.

(Subsequent to the manuscript’s completion, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority filed suit against more than 100 oil and gas companies in an action that could run into the billions of dollars for restoration of the Louisiana Gulf Coast, a move that came under harsh criticism from Jindal.)

So long as oil money can continue to purchase politicians, there is little to no chance of any of the Zebrowskis’ recommendations ever becoming reality. Hydrocarbon Hucksters, however, is an eye-opening read that you should plan to purchase as a handy reference as soon as it hits the shelves next year.

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“Dirty rice is a spicy Cajun dish compounded from the king of grains and the rough-chopped innards ob beast and fowl. It is best eaten hot, eyes closed, no questions asked.”

–Cliff Probst, from “What to Eat in Louisiana.”

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LouisianaVoice does not normally offer book reviews but we would like to make an exception with Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League, a novel by Gerald Duff.

If you are a fan of the grand old game and you are into baseball lore, this book is for you.

Published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, Dirty Rice (306 pages) http://www.ulpress.org/ tells us the story of Gemar Batiste, who is recruited from the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation in Texas to pitch and play outfield for the Rayne Rice Birds in 1935.

Gemar, we learn soon enough, is a spiritual player who clings to his cultural lore but who also possesses all the odd superstitions that are peculiar to baseball players (step over the line, never on it; do not cross the bats, lay them side by side; at all costs, avoid speaking to or making eye contact with a pitcher who is pitching a no-hitter).

All but one of the characters is fictional. The lone exception is Roderick “Hookey” Irwin, a right-handed pitcher who in 1934 led the Evangeline League with a record of 21-4. Irwin just happens to be the uncle of author Duff.

Duff, a native of the Texas Gulf Coast, has taught literature and writing at Vanderbilt University, Kenyon College, Johns Hopkins University, and St. John’s College in Oxford. He also served as Academic Dean at Rhodes College, Goucher College and McKendree University.

The Class D Evangeline League, Duff tells us, was also known as the Hot Sauce League. Cajun humorist Justin Wilson referred to it in his stories as the Hot Pepper League. Its teams were spread out all over Louisiana, from Morgan City to Monroe, from Lake Charles to Hammond during its history from 1934 (when Rayne was the Red Sox) to 1951. Depending on the year, foreign teams from Port Arthur, Texas, and Natchez, Mississippi slipped in and out of the league. Rayne’s last year of competition in the league was 1941.

Batiste and another rookie, Mike Gomez, share a room in a local residence owned by a “Miz Doucette.” Gomez, an African-American from Mobile, Alabama, is officially listed as Cuban but to the locals he is considered a redbone, a racial mixture indigenous to South Louisiana. That was the only way he could qualify to play on an otherwise all-white team during the pre-Jackie Robinson years. And of course, his situation leads to problems near the end of the 1935 season, a season in which Rayne chases Opelousas for the league championship.

The real Evangeline League was hit by a betting scandal in 1946 and four members of the Houma Indians and one from Abbeville Athletics were suspended though the allegations of throwing games was never proven.

A professional gambler with ties to Sen. Huey Long (the Kingfish) moves in and out of the fictional Rice Birds’ locker room with apparent ease and Gomez is soon entangled in his web and predictably, makes key throwing errors that cost his team games in order to supplement his $50 per month salary.

Gomez knows his career is fated to never advance beyond the Evangeline League because of his color so he determines to take advantage of any financial opportunity presented him. We will leave it to you to discover whether or not Gomez is suspended, allowed to play, or if he ultimately costs his team the championship.

Duff is obviously a student of baseball; he simply knows too many of the nuances for him not to possess a deep understanding of the game within the game that is baseball. He approaches the game with the same mentality of a seasoned player—even down to anticipating what the pitcher will throw in a given situation and how to play a batter based on his batting stance and what the pitcher is throwing.

His dialogue between characters tends to drag to the point of becoming a distraction but we can attribute that to the differences in the culture of South Louisiana Cajuns, African-Americans and Native Americans.

Throw in the doomed would-be romance between Gemar Batiste and Teeny, Miz Doucette’s daughter, and you have the complete novel.

Duff has done a masterful job of capturing the unbridled enthusiasm that minor league baseball enjoyed in Louisiana during the heyday of the Evangeline League. Regrettably, all he can give us is the memory of that wonderful bygone era of Louisiana professional baseball.

But at least we have that.

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It’s long overdue, but it’s finally here. And it was worth the wait.

We’re talking about Life in Looziana, a book of vintage Fred Mulhearn cartoons.

Fred, many around Ruston will remember, once ran Mulhearn’s Florist Shop in what is now Monjunis Restaurant. Then, for some inexplicable reason, he gave up the serenity and aromatic delights of the florist business in favor of LSU Law School. He now works as an attorney for the Louisiana Department of Revenue and Taxation.

But he never gave up his passion for pithy editorial cartoons.

Introduced along with some samples of this work to the late Jim Hughes, at the time executive editor of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, he was quickly signed on as a part-time editorial cartoonist for the newspaper.

Justifiably, the unofficial title of “Louisiana’s Own Cartoonist” was bestowed upon him by the late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen. The fact that Mulhearn was born in McKeithen’s neck of the woods (Winnsboro) probably didn’t hurt. Mulhearn and wife Roxanne currently reside in Denham Springs.

In addition to his book, a whole boatload (which is an exact term of measurement in south Louisiana) can be found on his internet web page: http://www.fredmulhearn.com.

But back to the book: it is, he proclaims “a collection of cartoons and commentary about what makes Louisiana different, unique, and sometimes just plain weird.”

Without giving anything away, all of Fred’s observations are accompanied by the appropriate cartoon illustrations.

He notes, for example, that “Translucence is not a desired quality in coffee.”

If you have ever attended a crawfish boil in south Louisiana, you understand Fred when he says, “In other states, old newspapers are taken to recycle bins. In Louisiana, we use them as table cloths.”

Most businesses have their own special niche when it comes to profitable holidays. Toy stores have Christmas, jewelry stores have Valentine’s Day, florists have Mother’s Day. In south Louisiana, car washes have love bug season.

The Lord may have sent plagues of frogs and locust on the Egyptians, but they somehow missed out on nutria, West Nile mosquitoes, and Formosan termites.

When a candidate for governor is tossed out the race by the courts because of a prior felony, Fred notes that the poor guy should’ve run for Insurance Commissioner.

Among the great chefs of Louisiana, Fred did not neglect to include “the folks who fry the chicken at Popeye’s.”

On a Sunday morning in Podunk, Louisiana, a couple walking to church observes that the governor is flying in for the day’s service—again.

And when food comes in a brown paper bag and the grease soaks through the paper, you know it’s got to taste good.

Out of professional courtesy, the Ringling Bros.-Barnum and Bailey Circus waited until the legislature adjourned before coming to Baton Rouge.

In one cartoon that hits very close to home in its timing, Fred notes that everyone is relieved when elections are finally over. Everyone, that is, except consultants, pollsters, ad agencies, printers, TV stations, newspapers, billboard companies, advisors, direct mail firms, etc.

One of the more unrealistic mass marketing schemes is that of Christmas cards depicting snow scenes when real Looziana Christmas weather involves dreary, rainy days.

And when you forget to purchase your Lottery and Powerball tickets, you can always simply flush a five dollar bill down the toilet: same result, just as much fun.

What possible purpose does the Rose Bowl Parade serve? They don’t even have throws.

Finally, Fred observes that in other states, women would be insulted by a gift of cheap plastic beads.

In Louisiana, some women disrobe in public to get them.

The book, at $14.95, is a bargain if you’re from Louisiana. If you’re not from Louisiana, you can’t possibly understand its contents or its concept. But get it anyway. It’s sure to be a classic. You can get yours at Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, order from Cavalier’s website at http://www.cavalierhousebooks.com or by ordering direct from Fred at http://www.fredmulhearn.com.

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Below is a video link to a Louisiana legend: Leadbelly.

Leadbelly is featured in my book, Louisiana Rocks! The True Genesis of Rock & Roll. He is just one of about 300 Louisiana artists profiled in the book. Born in Mooringsport near Shreveport, his real name was Hudie Ledbetter. He was incarcerated for murder in the Texas state penitentiary where he is rumored to have sung his way out of prison. He sang for the governor of Texas who then pardoned him. Leadbelly later was sentenced to Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana for another murder. It was there that he was discovered by folklorist John Lomax who got him another pardon, hired him as his driver, and promoted his singing career.

Record executives tried to turn him into a blues singer which he hated. He considered himself a folk singer and often appeared in concert with another folk singer, Pete Seeger.

Leadbelly wrote four songs which most people will recognize immediately. The first is Good Night Irene, featured in the video below. The other Three are The Rock Island Line, The Midnight Special, and In New Orleans. The latter three are each listed among the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll,” as compiled by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame although In New Orleans is listed by its more familiar title, The House of the Rising Sun, a song made famous by the British group The Animals in the mid-60s.

You may learn more about my book by logging onto:

wwwlouisianarockstomaswell.com

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