Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Jindal's Education Reforms: 'not about what works, but about his political ambitions'
BESE District 3 representative Lottie Beebe was one of the new members of the board who got steam rolled by the new majority on that board who voted to unilaterally amend the Louisiana Constitution by clearing the way for Minimum Foundation Formula (MFF) funds to be diverted to private schools. Beebe, unlike the new majority of the board, was not elected with money from a handful of wealthy individuals and Governor Jindal.
Shocked by the refusal of the board's bought and paid for majority to even allow a formal discussion of the momentous decision, Beebe decided to convene an education issues forum in Cecilia to inform the public about what is taking place.
On Sunday, March 4, more than 200 people gave up their afternoon on a beautiful day to hear a panel of speakers describe the current state of public education in Louisiana (including what is taking place in the Recovery School District), the politics driving the proposed changes, and why the changes will worsen, not improve, public education in Louisiana.
The speakers were: Beebe; Graig Luscombe, Executive Director of the Louisiana Retired Teachers Association; Bonnie Thibodeaux, principal of Parks Primary School in St. Martin Parish; Al Blanchard, a supervisor in St. Martin Parish; Karran Harper Royal, mother of students in the Recovery School District and a founder of the national public education advocacy program Parents Across America; Bambi Polotzola of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council; Mike Deshotel, a retired teacher, former head of the Louisiana Association of Educators and now an education blogger; Lee Meyers, a teacher, a member of the Assumption Parish School Board, and a vice president of the Louisiana School Board Association; and Bryan Alleman of the Acadia Parish public school system.
The presentations lasted three hours. There was a question and answer session afterwards, but I did not stay for it.
Beebe told her audience that she was summoned to a special meeting of the BESE board the prior week and that the radical restructuring of the MFF to include the vouchers was included then. She asked for more time to discuss it in the meeting but her request was denied by newly appointed Superintendent of Education John White. So, with very little discussion, the plan to use public tax dollars to fund private schools — which many of the new members had been required to pledge to endorse in order to win financial support from Jindal, contractor Lane Grigsby and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — was approved and sent to the Legislature.
The Legislature (if they choose to adhere to the Louisiana Constitution that a majority of BESE members felt free to ignore) must either approve or disapprove the BESE funding scheme; they cannot modify it.
Luscombe said that most retirement legislation this year will not apply to K-12 employees, but as part of Jindal's divide to conquer strategy, that will wait until next year. Luscombe said he believes that this year's bills targeting the state employee retirement system and state workers will be the model for changes in the teacher retirement system that Jindal will pursue next year.
Luscombe singled out six bills (three really, but with separate House and Senate versions) that constitute the thrust of the Jindal changes.
HB 56 and SB 52 — will require state employees to contribut an additional 3% to their retirement fund. That money, though, is not going to go to close the gap in the unfunded accrued liability of the state employee retirement fund. Instead, the money from those higher contributions will go to the state general fund. The increased retirement contributions will be treated as general tax revenue of the state.
HB 55 and SB 51 will change the retirement eligibility age. If a state employee is not not 55 by June 30 of this year, he/she will have to work until 67 in order to be eligible to get their full retirement benefit.
Luscombe said the administration is also switching all new state employees to a defined contribution retirement program. Under these plans, individuals control the investment of their retirement money and it is paid out to them in a lump sum upon their retirement. He said he inquired as to the average balance of defined contribution retirement accounts that the state has made available to employees since the 1990s. He said he was told that it was $270,000.
"So, you'll get that money when you retire," Luscombe said. "God help you if you live too long and spend that money."
HB 61 and SB 53 will move state employees to a cash balance retirement account.
Luscombe said the Louisiana Teacher Retirement System earned 26% on its investments in recent years. "That's the best rate of return in the country, yet it is under attack," Luscombe said.
Thibodeaux, the Principal at Parks Primary focused on personnel evaluation program. She said that Compass, as it is called, is nothing new, but labeled it "busy work for someone else's agenda."
She said the evaluation system has a 23%to53% margin of error in evaluations. "This lack of accuracy would not suffice in the business world, yet being applied to public school teachers and principals."
"Teacher observation is not new," Thibodeaux said. "Compass not new." She then rattled off the list of its predecessors. LaTip, LaTap, LaTAAP, now Compass.
She pointed out that the Compass system is supposed to start in August, but noted that "the observation tools not developed yet. Yet we will be required to use it to decide effectiveness versus ineffectiveness of all education professionals."
She said that the overall tool is 40-page document and that it takes seven hours to administer, evaluate and complete. "I can tell you within seven minutes if I've got an effective teacher in my classrooms," Thibodeaux said.
Compass, she predicted, will produce same end result as prior systems but will consume more time.
She said the true measure of teacher effectiveness would not be the annual LEAP tests, but a test at the beginning of the year followed by one at the end of the year. That, she said, would give you a direct meaningful measure of the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom.
Blanchard provided an over view of the performance of charter schools in Louisiana.
He produced a spreadsheet which contained performance ratings of 82 of the 92 charter schools in Louisiana, including those in the Recovery School District in New Orleans.
Blanchard said that state figures show that 79% of RSD district schools were graded D or F. He said that a lower percentage of RSD schools received A grades than did the rest of the state's public schools.
He said that overall, 64% of all charters get D and F. Which is far higher than the percentage of all Louisiana public schools, 44% of which received D or F grades in the state's school rating system.
Those charters getting "A" grades have selective admission, Blanchard said.
Under the Jindal reform package, students in schools graded C or lower would be eligible for vouchers.
Blanchard cited a 2009 Stanford study on charters which echoed his own review of Louisiana charters. Specifically, of the 17% of charters rated having superior performance than public schools, most have selective admission. Standford found that 35% of charter schools performed worse than traditional public schools with the remainder performing equal to that of public schools. "If only that small percentage are better — and they have to rely on special rules to get those outcomes — why is our state rushing in that direction?" Blanchard asked.
Ms. Royal, who has two children enrolled as students in the Recovery School District says the so-called New Orleans miracle is really "smoke and mirrors." She referred attendees to a Times-Picayune article on Jindal agenda.
In her experience, Royal said that New Orleans charter charge a lot of money in fees for what most parents would consider basic features of public schools.
She said most charters have select enrollment because "even those who can test in can't afford to stay in the schools."
Performance of the schools is skewed by rules that allow charters to not allow students with grade point averages below 2.0 to return to the school the following year.
"In New Orleans, we now have six variations of public schools," Royal said. "You need a guide book just to figure out who is responsible for what school. The decisions made about the operation of these schools are not local decisions, we have to agree to let a private board govern the school."
"I have never defended status quo," Royal said, "But these reforms are not about public education. It's about politics and the erosion of the democratic process. Corporate America has launched attack on public education."
She said much of the Jindal education agenda can be traced to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been working to undermine public education for decades.
"These reforms don't make any sense," Royal said. "They don't make sense because it's not about education. It's about politics and power. It's about implementing the ALEC agenda."
She said that Jindal, John White and their allies are hiding the fact that Recovery School District schools are being outperformed by traditional public schools in Louisiana by the very measure they use to condemn the performance of public education.
"The only way to fight this is that you must get involved now," Royal said. "These people don't intend for our kids to get a quality education, their intent is to defund public education."
In her abbreviated comments, Polotzolla (who has an autistic son) said that 91% of charters don't have students with multiple disabilities, while 59% don't have students with autism.
She said she wants to force charters to take students with disabilities. Charters currently ask parents to waive rights. Selective admission systems at charters create a segregated system where only least desirable students from an educational achievement standpoint will be left to be educated in traditional public schools.
Mike Deshotel said the school grading system guiding the state's evaluation process is unreliable and unfair. He pointed out that all alternative schools in the state are graded F even though those schools are providing students with work skills and the basics they will need to make a living in the world.
Deshotel said that the root cause of Louisiana's educational problems is poverty. No amount of reform that fails to take this into account will ever succeed.
Deshotel singled out two bills to watch HB 976 and SB 597.
"In my 45 years in public education, these are the worst bills I've ever seen," Deshotel said. "They are terrible and very dangerous legislation.
The bills will vastly expand the use of charter schools and vouchers with public education dollars.
Lee Meyer said the new MFF funding recently approved by BESE actually results in support reductions for 35 of the state's public school districts.
"They added in 8,000 voucher students to the MFF at expense of the other districts," Meyer said.
Alleman of Acadia Parish documented the failure of charter schools and the Recovery School District to improve education, but noted that they do succeed in diverting badly needed resources from public school districts that must serve every student.