Gov. Piyush Jindal may have appeared to come away from this year’s legislative session with sweeping wins in his public education reform but in reality, things appear to be off to a somewhat rocky start.
It may be too early to say Jindal’s grand scheme for the revamping (read: dismantling) of public education is falling apart but it would certainly be correct to say the waste of precious state voucher dollars has begun in earnest and detractors are only too happy to cite the inexcusable lack of oversight by John White’s Department of Education (DOE).
Another possible indication that all is not well is the recent exodus of a number of DOE personnel, including a key employee responsible for putting a positive spin on department policy for the media.
Friday, June 8, was the last day on the job for DOE Public Affairs Director René Greer.
“Your questions have challenged us to do better, your reports have given our citizens the information they need to hold us accountable and your narratives have inspired individuals and groups to engage in this important work,” she said in an email to reporters.
Greer, who said she has no immediate career plans, also thanked reporters for their “patience, understanding and support on those occasions when the requests coming into Public Affairs exceeded our capacity to respond.”
Greer, who served at the pleasure of the education superintendent, may have fallen on her sword. “She worked very hard and put up with a lot of internal and external flak,” said one former co-worker. “If I had to guess, I suspect the department’s slow response to (a public records) request from The Independent (a Lafayette weekly publication) may have had something to do with her departure,” the co-worker said.
On May 2, The Independent wrote, “State Superintendent of Education John White and DOE spokeswoman René Greer have yet to respond to numerous phone calls and email inquiries from The Independent over the past 24 hours regarding the department’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver application, despite public record statutes requiring them to do so.
“They also have failed to respond to Louisiana Press Association attorney Joshua Zelden, who told both White and Greer in an email that ‘all documents created, and correspondence entered into, by government agencies in the course of their official business must be made available to all requestors immediately, unless a specific exception to the public records law is cited…”
Louisiana is one of 26 states and the District of Columbia which have requested waivers from NCLB provisions. Louisiana’s application is not immune to the federal scrutiny granted to other states. The U.S. Department of Education sent critique letters to the states in mid-April but the contents of Louisiana’s letter which lay out the deficiencies in Louisiana’s alternative plan for achieving higher academic performance are still being withheld from public scrutiny.
Greer has not responded to an email sent to her on Sunday by LouisianaVoice which asked if her departure was related to the dispute with The Independent.
The department’s problems with The Independent notwithstanding, the biggest newsmaker has been the unbelievably sorry job of vetting voucher applicants:
• The New Living Word School in Ruston has received vouchers for 315 students, the most in the state thus far, despite having woefully inadequate facilities for those 315 additional students. The school has only 122 students and no desks, no books, no chairs and no classrooms to accommodate additional students.
• A small private school in DeRidder has been approved for 119 vouchers worth more than $400,000. Besides misspelling scholarships as “sholarships” on a sign advertising the availability of vouchers on a sign outside the school, it has been revealed that BeauVer Christian Academy has experienced past financial problems. In 2009, Maysia Coker, registered agent and an officer of BeauVer, was sentenced in 36th Judicial District Court in Beauregard Parish to a three-year suspended sentence for issuing worthless checks. She was fined $2,000 plus court costs and ordered not to have a checking account in her name or to be a signatory on any business or personal checking accounts or to hold a position of financial authority during her four-year probation. Coker registered BeauVer Christian Academy as a limited liability corporation on May 5, 2010, state records show. BeauVer had 78 students and 12 teachers last year. The school, formerly known as Beauregard Christian Academy, had seven liens and financial judgments filed against it ranging from $2,778 to $14,000 between 2007 and 2009.
• Upper Room Bible School in New Orleans also received 214 vouchers despite a 78 percent failure rate on students’ LEAP tests. Upper Room was third from the bottom in rankings of all Recovery School District and voucher schools combined.
• Eternity Christian Academy in Calcasieu Parish, which currently has 14 students, has been approved for 135 vouchers which will generate about $1 million in taxpayer funds for the school.
As if all that were not bad enough, now it seems the media, including the Washington Post, New Orleans’ Gambit and Gannett’s Louisiana newspapers are beginning to wake up and ask hard questions, albeit a little late:
• The Baton Rouge Advocate, which has largely been silent on the issue of education reform, had an editorial on Tuesday in which it questioned the legality of Jindal’s intent to raid Minimum Foundation Program funding for public schools to fund vouchers for private schools. “It is a question that the judiciary can and should weigh in on, because on its face, the MFP money is dedicated in the Louisiana Constitution to public schools,” the Baton Rouge paper said. “…the governor and his allies are whipping up the rhetoric on the unions—despite the obvious relevance of the constitutional question,” it added.
• The Washington Post, on May 31, quoted White as saying federal waivers would allow districts and schools to exercise flexibility from federal regulations in exchange for instituting rigorous accountability systems. Citing the vouchers granted to the aforementioned schools, the Post said, “All of this makes you wonder what Louisiana and the U.S. Education Department define as ‘rigorous accountability systems.’”
• Gambit, in its analysis of the voucher program, said “‘Reform’ always means ‘change’ but it does not always mean ‘improvement.’”
Finally, if proof is needed that Jindal’s voucher and charter school crusade is not profit driven, there is the Louisiana Federation for Children and its accomplice, the Alliance for School Choice.
The Alliance for School Choice is clamoring for students like a flock of vultures circling a dying carcass.
In a mail-out received by a north Louisiana family (with no children in school, it should be added), the alliance proclaims, “There is still time to apply to enroll your child in a better school for free.”
For free? Is the Alliance for School Choice for real? Just where does it think the voucher money for tuition comes from, the tooth fairy?
This is tax money paid by Louisiana citizens that will go to line the pockets of profiteers and political opportunists.
For free indeed.
The flip side of the mail-out says, “Time is running out to give your child a better education. Apply for a scholarship before June 29.”
It goes on to say, “Recently, Louisiana lawmakers expanded the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program statewide, which allows children trapped in low-performing schools to receive a scholarship to attend a participating private or public school in the 2012-2013 school year for free.”
There’s that word free again.
The state version of the American Federation for Children/Alliance for School Choice, the Louisiana Federation for Children, contributed more than $100,000 to Louisiana legislative and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education candidates in 2010 and 2011, state records show.
Many of those candidates also received contributions last year from Gov. Jindal’s campaign, further evidence of the philosophical and financial bonds that exist between the alliance, Jindal and the voucher program—all at the expense of Louisiana taxpayers.