More than 1100 students in the parishes of Caddo and Webster have signed up for course choice programs with a provider whose chairman with close ties to former President George W. Bush and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
An outfit named FastPath Learning of Austin, Texas, has somehow managed to obtain student information to sign up the students without the knowledge of the student or of their parents.
If true, that’s fraud, pure and simple—and a blatant violation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
And the chairman of the board for FastPath? None other than Dr. Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education during President George W. Bush’s first term and a member of Mitt Romney’s Education Policy Advisory Group during last year’s presidential campaign.
Paige, it should be noted, also once served as superintendent of Houston’s schools and during his tenure there, he became mired in an ugly scandal when it was learned that the Houston system, seventh largest in the nation, had falsified its dropout statistics.
Course Choice, which is under the supervision of Department of Education (DOE) Deputy Superintendent of Portfolio Dave “Lefty” Lefkowith, is a DOE program whereby Louisiana public school students are allowed to sign up for online computer courses offered by providers approved by DOE.
Lefkowith, who once worked with Enron and with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, commutes from his home in Los Angeles and is paid $146,000 per year by DOE.
Tuition for the courses ranges from $700 to $1,275 each and providers get one-half of their tuition fees up front upon registering students for courses. The second half is paid when a student successfully completes a course and the course providers have full autonomy in making the determination of when—or if—a student completes a course. The incentive to the provider, of course, is to have as many students as possible “complete” the courses.
Fox, welcome to the hen house.
The tuition is free to the student with the state picking up the tab. Students also receive a free iPad upon registering. There was no word if the 1,100 students who were unknowingly registered received iPads.
Students are allowed to take up to five classes outside their home school at taxpayer expense.
Students and parents in the two parishes say they never requested nor approved the registering of the students for the courses. One student was registered for a class he had already successfully completed in the classroom—with an A grade.
State Superintendent of Education John White, asked about the apparent lack of oversight, said Course Choice providers underwent a “rigorous” four-part approval process before being allowed to offer classes and that checks and balances are in place to insure that students do not end up in an academically unsound course.
On Wednesday, White announced DOE would attempt to finance the Course Choice program through its own resources following last week’s Louisiana Supreme Court ruling upholding a lower court decision that the method of using Minimum Foundation Program funds to pay for the vouchers was unconstitutional.
White said that more than 3,000 courses have been chosen thus far at an average cost of $700 each, a total of $2.1 million. Registration will remain open through August, he said.
The revelation of the 1,100 registrations which, if true, could be construed as fraud and theft could also involve a violation of the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) since FastPath would necessarily require certain student information, including names, addresses, social security numbers, etc., in order to register the students.
The question then becomes just who provided that information to FastPath? There are already questions about White’s leaking information about evaluations of three Caddo Parish elementary teachers through an intermediary to the Baton Rouge Advocate last October.
That intermediary was Rayne Martin, a former employer of DOE who currently serves as executive director of Stand for Children Louisiana.
In the wake of the flap over the negative evaluations of the teachers, the Advocate published a letter to the editor which defended the Value Added Model used by DOE to evaluate the teachers and which even cited statistics from the leaked document.
Turns out that letter was written by Monica Candal, policy and data analyst for Stand for Children Louisiana, leaving one to wonder about the connection between White and Stand for Children.
Louisiana Voice attempted to contact FastPath by telephone. An automated message told us to press 1 if we were a student already enrolled in FastPath or to press 2 for “all other inquiries.”
We pressed 2 and got another automated message that said, “We’re sorry we are unable to answer your call at this time.” So we called back and pressed 1 and got an automated message that said (take a deep breath and count to 10), “We’re sorry we are unable to answer your call at this time.” This was at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, so it wasn’t because they close during lunch.
Next, we went online and clicked on “Contact us” and several boxes popped up on our computer screen asking for our name, our organization, our email address and the city and state from which we were emailing them. Strangely, it did not request our telephone number, though we would have been happy to provide that as well.
The following note was typed into the message box:
“This is for Compliance Officer David Callaway:
How did FastPath obtain the information (names, schools, home addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, etc.) on the 1100 students in Caddo and Webster parishes who were signed up for your Course Choice courses without, the students and parents claim, their knowledge or consent?
It would appear that you would have to be in possession of certain information in order to enroll these students and I simply want to know who provided that data to you.
A few minutes after we sent the message, we received a computer-generated message in our email in-box that said, “Thanks for contacting us! We’ll get back to you soon.”
Does anyone care to take odds on whether or not we’ll ever hear back from them?
The leaks would seem to validate concerns about a recent agreement, since cancelled because of a public outcry, to furnish personal information on some 700,000 Louisiana school children to a data bank run by White’s former boss Joel Klein, now with inBloom, a data storage company (or data “parking garage,” to use White’s terminology) run by NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch.
inBloom had offered no guarantees that the data could not be accessed by hackers and in fact, an unrelated privacy breach on Bloomberg News occurred when reporters extracted subscribers’ private information to break news stories. That breach would seem to lend credence to security concerns about inBloom.
Recent stories by LouisianaVoice have prompted a witch hunt at DOE in an effort to determine the source of recent stories. Personal printers have been removed so that documents must now be printed at a central location more easily monitored. IT personnel have been called in to review emails.
It seems to us, security—and Louisiana taxpayers—would somehow be better served through efforts to attempt to learn who provided FastPath with personal data on 1,100 students signed up for courses without their knowledge or consent.