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Archive for the ‘Vouchers’ Category

By James C. Finney, Ph.D.

Guest Columnist

(Editor’s Note: James Finney is one of two Louisiana citizens (Mike Deshotels is the other) who was named as a defendant in a lawsuit by State Education Superintendent John White in an effort to thwart efforts by the pair to obtain public records from the Department of Education. White has defended his action by pointing out he is not seeking monetary damages from Finney or Deshotel. He failed to mention, however, that it will cost them money from their personal funds to defend the lawsuit while White has the financial resources of the State of Louisiana at his disposal.)

 

Much has been written about the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, otherwise known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program, or the voucher program. To summarize: The Department of Education allows vouchers for almost any private school that wants them (or so it seems) and then performs minimal oversight.

The students are tested, but the Department works hard to make sure taxpayers don’t get to see any useful data. The program is based on a premise that it helps poor kids access private schools. But “poor” is 2.5 times the poverty level which, for a family of four, means an annual income of $59,625 is low enough to put a kid in a private school at taxpayer expense. And, of course, the state refuses to release any data about how many children are at which ends of that range of income. And the point is, allegedly, to allow kids to escape failing public schools.

Never mind that the students may have never attended a public school. Ever.

But this post isn’t about that voucher program. It’s about the sneaky alternative that funds private schools by way of tax rebates. The Tuition Donation Rebate Program allows donors to fund private school tuition and recoup most of that donation as a tax rebate.

As might be expected, there are middlemen taking their cut of the money. At the beginning of the program, there was only one such organization—Arete Scholars Louisiana. The registered agent, Gene Mills, he of the Family Forum, has apparently neglected the paperwork required to keep charter 41200779N active with the Louisiana Secretary of State.

Mills, founder of Louisiana Family Forum, was the centerpiece of an extraordinary post by Jason France on his Crazy Crawfish blog in October 2012. https://thecrazycrawfish.com/tag/louisiana-family-fourm/

Founded in 1998, Louisiana Family Forum included as its “Independent Political Consultant” and “Grassroots Coordinator,” former State Sen. Dan Richey. http://www.lafamilyforum.org/about/

As an example of the family values for which Family Forum supposedly stands, Richey, while serving as a state senator from Ferriday in the 1980s, gave his allotted Tulane scholarship to a Caddo Parish legislator’s daughter in exchange for that legislator’s awarding of his scholarship to Richey’s brother as a means of circumventing the informal prohibition against giving the scholarships to immediate family members.

Superintendent John White’s Department of Education, with the approval of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), thought it was critical that there be multiple organizations available to help people support private education rather than pay taxes. So they gave grants of up to $499,750 to ACE Scholarships Louisiana (charter 41590796K) and up to$500,000 for New Schools for Baton Rouge Excellence Scholarship Fund (charter41726088K) so that these limited-liability corporations could each set up their business of accepting donations, funneling them to private schools, and providing the documentation required for the donors to get tax rebates from the Louisiana Department of Revenue.

According to the Louisiana Nonpublic School Choice 2015 Annual Report, which was submitted to BESE but not accepted, the tuition donation rebate program started in 2013-14 with Arete.

Arete’s 2013-14 Arete’s 2014 Annual Report indicates that the organization disbursed 14 scholarships, worth a total of $60,975.02, and all funded by the Atlanta Falcons.

No, that’s not a typo: Those Atlanta Falcons. That amount was confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Revenue: One unnamed taxpayer was issued a rebate in the amount of $60,975.02 in tax year 2014.

According to the state’s 2015 annual report cited above, there were two Student Tuition Organizations active in 2014-15: Arete and ACE. Arete’s 2015 Annual Report confirms the number of scholarships reported by the state, 50, at 24 schools, with a total value of $180,381, while ACE Scholarships Louisiana LLC’s 2015 Annual Report reports 13 scholarships, three schools, and a total of $40,780.67.

The donors of note on Arete’s annual report include the Atlanta Falcons, Chik-fil-A, James Garvey and several other individuals. ACE’s donors were David George and Edward Rispone. According to the Louisiana Department of Revenue, the total of rebates awarded in 2015 was $101,659.85, and they ranged in size from $950 to $47,105.

The numbers exploded in 2015-16, though, especially for ACE.  The state’s voucher report indicates that Arete awarded (as of March 2016) 205 scholarships at 50 schools, ACE awarded 558 scholarships at 77 schools, and New Schools awarded 13 scholarships at four schools. The names of the schools, donors and dollar amounts likely won’t be available for several months, however.

The targets for total scholarship awards (remember those half-million dollar contracts a few paragraphs above) were 1,000 for this year and 1,250 for 2016-17 (ACE) and 75 and 125, respectively for New Schools. So apparently New Schools aimed low and shot lower. Perhaps that’s a good thing, in that taxpayers will see less revenue diverted away from the state’s coffers. On the other hand, this spreadsheet indicates that, as of the end of 2015, New Schools had already collected $300,000 on its contract, and ACE had already collected $249,874.98.

It’s interesting what a person can learn from availing themselves of their rights under Louisiana’s public records law (Title 44).

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As we face the end of eight years of ineptitude, deceit, and whoopee cushion governance, LouisianaVoice is proud to announce our first ever election of John Martin Hays Memorial Boob of the Year.

There are no prizes, just a poll of our readership as to whom the honor should go in our debut survey.

Hays was publisher of a weekly publication called appropriately enough, the Morning Paper in Ruston until his death last year. He relished nothing more than feasting on the carcasses of bloated egos. He single-handedly exposed a major Ponzi scheme in North Louisiana, sending the operator to prison. That got him some major ink in the Atlanta Constitution and the New York Times.

The problem of course, is trying to narrow the field to make the final selection manageable.

The obvious choice for most would be Bobby Jindal, but there are so many other deserving candidates that we caution readers not to make hasty decisions. After all, we wouldn’t want to slight anyone who has worked so hard for the honor.

So, without further ado, here are the nominees, along with a brief synopsis of their accomplishments.

  • Bobby Jindal: Mismanaged the state budget for an unprecedented eight consecutive years. At least there’s something to be said for consistency. In his eight-year reign of error (mostly spent in states other than Louisiana) he managed to cut higher education more than any other state; he robbed public education to reward for-profit charter schools and virtual schools; he gave away the state’s Charity Hospital system (he awarded a contract to the new operators—a contract with 50 blank pages which is now the subject of what is expected to be a prolonged legal battle; he appointed political donors to prestigious boards and commissions, including the LSU Board of Supervisors which, under his direction, fired two distinguished doctors, the school’s president and its legal counsel; He trumped up bogus charges against the director of the State Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) to appease mega-donor Tom Benson and to appoint the husband of his children’s pediatrician to head up the agency; he forced state offices to pay higher rent in order to again accommodate Benson by signing a costly lease agreement with Benson Towers; rather than consider alternative ideas, he simply fired, or teagued, anyone who disagreed with him on any point; he refused Medicaid expansion, thus depriving anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 low-income citizens needed medical care; he tried unsuccessfully to ram through pension reform that would have been devastating to state employees; he insisted on handing out contract after contract to attorney Jimmy Faircloth who is still searching for his first courtroom victory after receiving well more than $1 million in legal fees; he spurned a major federal grant that would have brought high-speed broadband internet to Louisiana’s rural parishes; he stole $4 million from the developmentally disadvantaged citizens so he could give it to the owner of a $75 million Indianapolis-type race track—a family member of another major donor and one of the richest families in the state; he abandoned his duties as governor to seek the Republican presidential nomination, a quest recognized by everyone but him as a fantasy; he ran up millions of dollars in costs of State Police security in such out-of-state locations as Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and South Carolina; he had the State Police helicopter give rides to his children, and the list goes on.
  • Attorney General Buddy Caldwell: All he did was completely botch the entire CNSI contract mess which today languishes in state district court in Baton Rouge; He consistently turned a blind eye to corruption and violations of various state laws while ringing up what he thought was an impressive record of going after consumer fraud (Hey, Buddy, those credit care scam artists are still calling my phone multiple times a day!); and his concession speech on election night was one for the books—a total and unconditional embarrassment of monumental proportions.
  • Kristy Nichols: What can we say? This is the commissioner of administration who managed to delay complying to our legal public records request for three entire months but managed to comply to an identical request by a friendly legislator within 10 days; We sued her and won and she has chosen to spend more state money (your dollars, by the way) in appealing a meager $800 (plus court costs and legal fees) judgment in our favor; it was her office that came down hard on good and decent employees of the State Land Office who she thought were leaking information to LouisianaVoice (they weren’t); she first reduced premiums for state employee health coverage in order to free up money to help plug a state budget deficit all the while whittling away at a $500 million reserve fund to practically nothing which in turn produced draconian premium increases and coverage cuts for employees and retirees (and during legislative hearings on the fiasco, she ducked out to take her daughter to a boy-band concert in New Orleans where she was allowed to occupy the governor’s private Superdome suite.
  • Troy Hebert: appointed by Jindal to head up ATC which quickly turned in a mass exodus of qualified, dedicated agents; he used state funds to purchase a synthetic drug sniffing dog (hint: there is no such thing as a synthetic drug sniffing dog because synthetic ingredients constantly change; this was just another dog, albeit an expensive one); he launched a racist campaign to rid his agency of black agents; while still a legislator, he was a partner in a firm that negotiated contracts with the state for hurricane debris cleanup.
  • Mike Edmonson: Oh, where do we start? Well, of course there is that retirement pay increase bill amendment back in 2014; there is the complete breakdown of morale, particularly in Troop D; then, there was the promotion of Tommy Lewis to Troop F Commander three years after he sneaked an underage woman into a casino in Vicksburg (he was subsequently fined $600 by the Mississippi Gaming Commission but only after first identifying himself as the executive officer of Troop F and asking if something “could be worked out.”); allowing Deputy Undersecretary Jill Boudreaux to take advantage of a lucrative buyout incentive for early retirement (which, in her case, came to $46,000, plus another $13,000 of unused annual leave) only to retire for one day and return the next—at a promotion to Undersecretary. She was subsequently ordered to repay the $56,000 but thanks to friends in high places, the money has never been repaid (maybe incoming Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne would like to revisit that matter); consistent inconsistency in administering discipline to officers who stray—such as attempting unsuccessfully to fire one trooper for assaulting a suspect (even though the suspect never made such a claim) while doing practically nothing to another state trooper who twice had sex with a woman while on duty—once in the back seat of his patrol car.
  • David Vitter: what can we say? The odds-on favorite to walk into the governor’s office, he blew $10 million—and the election. His dalliance with prostitutes, his amateurish spying on a John Bel Edwards supporter, an auto accident with a campaign worker who also headed up the Super PAC that first savaged his Republican opponents in the primary, turning Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle irreversibly against him and driving their supporters to Edwards’s camp. In short, he could write the manual on blowing an election.
  • The entire State Legislature: for passing that idiotic (and most likely illegal) budget on the last day of the session but only after Grover Norquist was consulted about the acceptability of a little tax deception; for allowing Jindal to run roughshod over them on such matters as education reform, hospital privatization, pension reform and financing recurring expenses with one-time money; for being generally spineless in all matters legislative and deferring to an absentee governor with a personal agenda.

Those are our nominees but only after some serious paring down the list.

Go to our comments section to cast your vote in 25 words or less. The deadline is Friday, Dec. 18.

As much as you might like, you are allowed to vote only once.

 

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By guest columnist James D. Kirylo

It is said that education is the great equalizer.  Yet, we know when it comes to resources, opportunity, and the quality of a teacher, not all educational experiences are equal.  Then we react with a bevy of voices coming from a variety of corners on how to better equalize the great equalizer.  To be sure, when making sense of gray matter, complexity, and multi-layered challenges inherent in education, the solutions are not easy.

Yet, when it comes to navigating through this entangled web, a leading thread to direct that charge ought to have the name “teacher” at its pinpoint.  There are few absolutes when it comes to education.  And of those few, one is this: There is positive correlation between a high quality teacher and student success.

It is, therefore, logical that if we want to move toward educational transformation, we need to ensure that teacher education is right up there on the priority list.  It is no coincidence that high achieving countries, like Singapore, South Korea, and Finland are quite selective as to who teaches their youth, how they prepare those who are to teach their youth, and how they maintain ongoing development while teaching their youth.

That a common thread in high-achieving countries is an elevated priority on teacher education ought to raise our collective sensibilities, stirring movement toward embracing that model right here in Louisiana.  To that end, the following summarizes what we need to qualitatively do in our backyard if we expect to move toward long-lasting transformative educational change:

  • Entrance requirements and processes into teacher education programs need to be more rigorous and more selective.
  • Those who are accepted into teacher education programs should be provided tuition waivers, grants, and other incentivizing initiatives.
  • Teacher education programs across the state must be creatively innovative, systematic, and unified in which not only content knowledge is emphasized, but also concepts, practices, and theories related to human development, pedagogy, curriculum, and learning are thoroughly explored in light of the diverse country in which we live.
  • Field experiences and rich mentorships are emphasized that works to connect the thoughtful relationship between theory and practice.
  • Upon graduation, teacher candidates leave their programs with great expertise, expectation, and adulation as they move into the teaching profession.
  • Once in the classroom, teachers regularly engage in ongoing and meaningful professional development, with them at the center of facilitating that endeavor.
  • The school curriculum in which teachers teach is wide-ranging, with an inclusive priority on the various arts, physical education, and foreign language.
  • When it comes to curricula, assessment, and evaluation decisions at the school setting, teachers are integral members at the table.
  • At the school setting, a test-centric focus has to be abandoned and replaced with a learning-centric focus that is energizing, inspiring, and imaginative.
  • Students, teachers, and schools are not in competition with one another, but work to cooperate, collaborate, and lift each other up.
  • All schools, regardless of location and economic demographic have equal access to quality resources, material, and high quality teachers.
  • The teaching profession is viewed with great respect, indicative of the competitive salaries, the working conditions in which teachers are placed, and how teachers are professionally viewed, treated, and honored.
  • A top-down hierarchal structure needs to be replaced with a teacher leadership empowerment structure.
  • “Fast-track” teacher training programs, such as TFA and LRCE, are not acceptable routes to teach our youth.
  • The waiving of requirements for those going into administrative type roles are not acceptable routes to work in leadership positions in our schools, systems, and state.
  • Only well-prepared, qualified, and certified teachers from high quality teacher education programs must teach our youth.

While there are certainly some examples of good efforts occurring in teacher education programs in our state, we are not doing nearly enough. Without doubt, if we are to move toward educational transformation in Louisiana, the systematic prioritization of teacher education is a must, the fostering of the professionalization of teaching is vital, and ultimately education must be viewed as an investment in which the entire state can be richly furthered.  Indeed, our international friends have provided us with an outstanding model.

(James D. Kirylo is an education professor, a former state teacher of the year, and his most recent book is titled A Critical Pedagogy of Resistance.  He can be reached at jkirylo@yahoo.com)

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When State Fire Marshal Butch Browning isn’t busy defending his wearing of unauthorized military decorations and ribbons or trying to shift blame for a carnival ride that malfunctioned only seven hours after his office inspected it, injuring two children in the process, he apparently can play the political game as well as any state appointed official.

Remember the New Living Word School in Ruston? That’s the facility that had only 122 students in 2012, yet was approved for more than 300 vouchers by the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) even though the school lacked teachers, classrooms, desks or other supporting facilities to handle the increased numbers.

In fact, construction was started on New Living Word’s school without anyone bothering to obtain the requisite building permits or to hire a licensed contractor. In fact, no zoning variance was even obtained to operate the school on property that was zoned for a church.

Moreover, the building itself had so many deficiencies that Ruston building inspector Bill Sanderson refused to approve the structure. Those shortcomings included partitions made of flammable materials and multiple electrical cords lying on the floor between wall outlets and computer equipment.

New Living Word, looking to lose tuition of $6,300 per student (an amount later determined by auditors to be excessive and all the vouchers for the school were pulled), could not afford to wait until all the requirements had been met.

Enter State Sen. Rick Gallot.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Gallot is a member of New Living Word Church and sits on the school’s governing board.

Suddenly, all those deficiencies and procedural violations went away after State Fire Marshal Butch Browning became involved.

Browning subsequently issued an amended approval letter, giving the school the green light to proceed with constructing classrooms in the upper floor of the church gymnasium. He said the school had not requested approval to build the classrooms but that “after further review and as a point of clarification, the upper floor…is included in the scope of the review and is acceptable.”

http://archive.thenewsstar.com/article/20120810/NEWS01/130110033/Fire-marshal-gives-school-go-ahead

The late John Hays, then-publisher of the Ruston weekly newspaper the Morning Paper, wrote on Aug. 27, 2012:

“Lobbying never fails, especially when Louisiana’s controversial school voucher program is the issue. After the state fire marshal fell I line, so, to, did the City of Ruston, approving a jury-rigged private school after a quickie inspection.

“Inspections were scheduled for Monday morning. But with 167 state vouchers (the number by then had been reduced from more than 300—before those, too, were yanked) at $6,300 each, New Living Word wasn’t willing to wait—just as it was not willing to apply for a zoning permit or a building permit or to hire a licensed contractor.”

Hays, holding both Browning and Sanderson responsible for bending the rules, went on to say that Neither Sanderson nor Browning had bothered to explain “why they didn’t pull the plug after New Living Word started construction without the required building permit and without a licensed contractor. Under Ruston 21 master plan, New Living Word was also required to obtain a zoning variance to operate a school on property presently zoned for a church,” Hays wrote.

“What Sanderson cannot change to anyone’s satisfaction is the fact that (church minister Jerry) Baldwin renovated two buildings without the benefit of a land use variance or a building permit, with a complete set of plans by a licensed architect or engineer, and without the use of a licensed general contractor and a licensed trade contractors,” the acerbic Hays said.

“Contrast this treatment of a politically-connected entity to that of a business that dared to ask that it be allowed to put up a sign slightly larger than the rules allowed,” said Ruston’s Walter Abbott on his Lincoln Parish Online blog.

Abbott, also writing about the New Living Word building permit controversy, then attached a link to an earlier story about a local realtor named Brandon Crume who wished to install a 32-square-foot sign in a location where such signs are limited to 16 square feet.

Bound by the rules, since there were no state politicians or appointees to intervene, the Ruston Planning and Zoning Commission denied Crume’s request outright, prompting Abbott to observe that a new business recently announced for Ruston “is showered with incentives, grants and glowing press coverage” and the press conference announcing its coming was attended “by numerous political dignitaries” while an “established Ruston business is encumbered with endless red tape just to remodel a building and put up a sign.”

“Maybe Brandon Crume needed a state senator on his payroll instead of facts and logic in his argument,” Abbott concluded.

The immediate question is why did Browning become involved when the local building inspector had already moved to halt work on the building? The obvious answer is that his intervention was on behalf of Baldwin and the school and not to support the local building inspector. It is equally evident that political pressure was brought to bear upon Sanderson to get him to ease up on the school which at the time, was held in high favor by DOE and by extension, Gov. Bobby Jindal.

And just what did Gallot promise Jindal in return for support from Baton Rouge via Browning’s involvement?

Shortcuts with safety regulations and procedures often can come back to bite you.

We can only hope there will not be a New Living Word incident reminiscent of the horrific school tragedy from the Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the thinly-disguised Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about Huey Long which became the basis of two movies of the same name.

Or of the very real 2011 accident with the carnival ride in Greensburg that injured two siblings only hours after a State Fire Marshal’s inspection failed to shut the ride down because of the removal of an emergency brake on the ride.

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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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