The Lie Unveiled – Part I

Reprinted from Mercedes Schneider’s EduBlog

Students at Walter Cohen High, a school taken over by the RSD, protest changes planned for their campus, including turning the school over to a charter operator.
Students at Walter Cohen High, a school taken over by the RSD, protest changes planned for their campus, including turning the school over to a charter operator.

I have written this piece with a particular audience in mind: Those in other states who are considering following what they think is “model reform” in New Orleans. They have heard the hype and are seriously considering investing in a lie. In this post, I will show the reality that is the so-called “New Orleans Miracle.” It is no miracle at all. It is only a “sleight of media.” An illusion. A farce. The New Orleans Miracle is sand in the mouths of those who would drink from its mirage. Never forget it.

Nevertheless, it has become extremely popular reformerspeak to talk about the “success” of New Orleans education. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is using supposed New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD-NO) success as a platform for his obvious 2016 bid for president. While in Virginia this month, however, Jindal was confronted with the truth. Yet in true reformer fashion, Jindal brushes the truth to the side:

Bobby Jindal
Bobby Jindal

Jindal said 77 percent of students in New Orleans were attending failing schools before Katrina. That’s been reduced to 29 percent, he said.

However, New Orleans schools run by the Recovery School District still have a D grade on average.

“We’re not where we want to be but have made great progress in seven years,” Jindal said.

John White
John White

Of course, Louisiana Supt. John White must also promote the lie that is Recovery School District success. In one instance, he refers to the RSD as “those extraordinary successes.”
The ploy of blatantly ignoring the truth and drilling a lie until the public believes it is not new to corporate reform. It’s just that reformers do it so well and are so faithful to the tactic.

I have been doing a lot of research, examination and confrontation regarding the “model” reforms in Louisiana over the past several months. My goal here is to synthesize what I have learned in order to provide solid proof of the corruption and fraud behind the “RSD success” myth.

I would like to begin with the year 2003.

RSD Beginnings

In 2003, the Louisiana legislature created the Recovery School District under then-Governor Kathleen Blanco. With this May 2003 law, schools that did not meet “minimum academic standards” were to be taken over by the state. The first school to have such a fate was Pierre Capdau School (New Orleans) in 2004.

Two other events of note happened in 2003. First, the Broad Foundation published a “Leadership Manifesto”” whereby corporate reformer Eli Broad and others declared that noneducator leadership “talent” should be brought into the public school arena, and that this “talent” should have “sweeping authority over the personnel and operations of the school.” (The Manifesto was already a chapter in a book published in 1999, Better Teachers, Better Schools, and was now being promoted as a corporate reform idea ready for implementation.)

During the previous year, Broad established his Superintendents Academy, a nonaccredited, secretive place where ambitious ladder-climbers outside of education might enter the profession and be placed into key administrative roles with virtually unchecked authority to create change.

The third item in 2003 worthy of note was that a young Bobby Jindal had accepted at least $70,000 from ALEC corporations in his first bid for governor. He lost.

The “Gift” of Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was a gift to corporate reform. Officially striking on Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina destroyed not only New Orleans, but much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Seven years later, it still affects me to write about it.

In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education and blatant reformer Arne Duncan insensitively referred to Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing to happen to the education system of New Orleans.”

From the perspective of Bobby Jindal and the corporate reformers, Duncan was right. As it turns out, many Louisianans were disillusioned with Democratic Governor Blanco’s response to the incredible crisis presented by Katrina. I remember hearing friends lament that “Jindal would have handled this better.” So, when Jindal ran for governor a second time in 2007, it was clear he had won before the final vote had been counted.

In his 2007 campaign, the reformer rhetoric was beginning to show (merit pay; “improve education options”), but not completely, as Jindal also openly advocated “competitively compensating teachers” aside from merit pay and “attracting and retaining qualified educators.”

But back to Katrina.

In November 2005, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 35, which transferred some 100 plus “low performing” schools over to RSD. The concentration of these schools was in New Orleans. When Orleans Parish Schools personnel returned following Katrina, they were shocked to discover the almost complete takeover of their school system. In short, they were no longer employed, according to Orleans Parish Schools. A district judge later ruled in favor of wrongful termination of Orleans Parish teachers represented in a class-action suit in November 2012.

The Louisiana legislature enabled corporate reform to sweep in (hence a new meaning to “sweeping reforms”) while a community, indeed a region and even a state, were still shaken from utter devastation. Arne Duncan celebrated. ALEC waited. And Jindal was coming.

When I was searching for a teaching position upon my return to New Orleans from Indiana in 2007, I noticed on the internet this new district in New Orleans named Recovery School District. They were accepting applications for numerous positions, from administration to support personnel. I applied for both administrative and teaching positions. I received no offers to interview. I did not know then what I know now: My resume had no hint of corporate reform, and corporate reformers were those being sought to fill RSD positions.

Paul Pastorek
Paul Pastorek

RSD had assumed most of what was once Orleans Parish Schools (OPS); yes, OPS did still exist, but it was only a fraction of what it once was. As for RSD, it rapidly became the reformer ideal of abounding charters; RSD was also hailed by reformers as “an epic experiment in education reform.” In September 2010, then-State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and then-RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas (currently facing possible ouster in Bridgeport, CT) declared RSD a “success,” though they presented no concrete evidence to support their assertion, as noted here:

Paul Vallas
Paul Vallas

In 2003, the Louisiana Legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD) to rehabilitate failed schools. While not always the most popular mechanism, it has become clear across the state and country that in order to ensure every child has the chance to attend a great school, political leaders must identify persistently low-performing schools, remove them temporarily from local control, and implement proven reform practices and turnaround strategies that yield dramatic results in the school.

Before the institution of letter grades in 2011 (another ALEC creation, featured in their 2010 Education Task Force mailouts), a star rating system was used to rate schools. In order to achieve “three stars,” a school needed a score of 100 points. The average score for RSD schools was 60.9 points. Ignoring this evidence, Pastorek and Vallas simply declared victory.

Remember, that is what reformers do: Ignore the evidence and declare victory.

The Advent of John White, and Bobby Jindal’s Second Term

In 2010, Jindal was nearing the end of his first term as governor, and he was keeping rhetoric toned down regarding his plans to follow the ALEC playbook and usher in “sweeping educational reforms” should he be reelected in 2011. Jindal did begin campaigning early, in March 2011, following a seven-point drop in the polls. Jindal was perceived as a governor who rode in on opportunity (disfavor with Democratic leadership during Katrina) then offered no “follow-through”:

After Jindal’s 2007 election, disillusionment settled in quick. His “blue ribbon” ethics reform was marred by ineffective enforcement and his interest in state policy rode constantly in the backseat behind his national political ambitions. His leadership was defined not by its boldness or its ability to transform; but by its caution, his unwillingness to take meaningful risks even in pursuit of desirable policy outcomes. He stood on the right side of many issues but seemed unwilling to push too hard, and subsequently accomplished too little of substance. At the beginning of 2011, Jindal was looking like a status quo governor, an uninteresting “anti-tax” cookie-cutter Republican who presided more than he led.

Prior to his re-election, Jindal brought in John White to be superintendent of RSD in September 2011. White happened to be one of those “talented” noneducators groomed via TFA and the Broad Superintendents Academy. (I cannot bring myself to write that White’s two or three years as a token TFA teacher earn him the title of “educator.”) White was trained by corporate reformer Joel Klein and posited in New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a deputy chancellor (duties included ignoring parental concerns, pushing charters and online education, and campaigning to close schools as he was waiting in line to “be a leader.”). When White left New York for New Orleans, New York parents were relieved. Disconnected from NY parents’ perceptions, Arne Duncan hailed White as a “visionary leader who has done great things in New York.”

Louisiana had no idea where a second term with Bobby Jindal would take it. His re-election was not so much due to public favor as it was a default to having no clear, strong Democratic opponent on the ballot coupled with Jindal’s strong ALEC ties. Jindal would open fire on the education profession (and health care and retirement, to name a few) in the following legislative session, promoting (and passing, due to an eerily compliant, ALEC-purchased legislature) a number of ALEC model bills, including those related to education reform (Act 1, Teacher Tenure and Evaluation, and Act 2, Vouchers).

Cohen students continued their protest for several days, including gathering in front of the RSD's downtown office.
Cohen students continued their protest for several days, including gathering in front of the RSD’s downtown office.

On the ballot with Jindal in the October 2011 election were eight seats for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Controlling BESE was pivotal for Jindal, as it would ensure him carte blanche for any “reforms” he wished to institute. In my school district, teachers and administrators were well aware of the importance of the BESE elections.

What we did not know was that the BESE board had already been purchased. The command for assisting Bobby Jindal with the BESE elections is evident in an e-mail from Foundation for Excellence in Education’s (FEE) Patricia Levesque, as she advises ALEC-entrenched, Jeb-Bush-controlled superintendents group, Chiefs for Change, on helping Bobby Jindal with the BESE elections since BESE is pivotal for approving Jindal’s choice for new state superintendent, none other than recent New York hire John White. In her e-mail, Levesque emphasizes that Jeb Bush has put his support behind Jindal’s choice of White:

“An article on state board of education races– that will impact selection of next chief in Louisiana. Gov. Jindal wants John White as next state chief. Governor Bush is lending his support/endorsement to the candidates Gov. Jindal is supporting for the State Board of Ed.”

And so, it came to pass:

In 2011, a coterie of extremely wealthy billionaires, among them New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, turned the races for unpaid positions on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) into some of the most expensive in the state’s history. Seven pro-education “reform” candidates for the BESE outraised eight candidates endorsed by the teacher’s unions by $2,386,768 to $199,878, a ratio of nearly 12 to one. In just one of these races, the executive director of Teach for America Greater New Orleans-Louisiana Delta, Kira Orange Jones, outspent attorney Louella Givens, who was endorsed by the state’s main teachers’ unions, by more than thirty-four to one: $472,382 to $13,815.

By November 2011, Jindal was re-elected; BESE was effectively purchased, and in January 2011, John White was installed as Louisiana State Superintendent of Education:

Why would out-of-state billionaires care about Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education? The state board must approve the governor’s nominee for the powerful state superintendent of education by a two-thirds majority, and the 2007–11 board would have been unlikely to approve Jindal’s nominee, John White. White had been in Louisiana for less than a year at the time, after coming from New York City to head the Recovery School District, which the BESE directly supervises. A Teach for America alum, White had previously spent five years working as a deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education under Michael Bloomberg. Louisiana’s education superintendent administers the state’s educational system, but of particular interest to wealthy donors, the superintendent recommends which schools should be eligible for accreditation and state support to the BESE, which ultimately approves. In the past decade or so, that has meant that the state superintendent and BESE discern which charter or voucher schools are eligible to provide instruction in the state of Louisiana.

In the end, it’s all about the money, and the money wins. A corporate reform perfect storm.

Once placed by purchased BESE into the position of state superintendent, White became one of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change members, a national posse to promote corporate reform at Jeb Bush’s bidding. (Former Louisiana Superintendent Paul Pastorek is a member emeritus, as well as a member of the Broad Center Board of Directors, as in Broad Superintendents Academy, as in the place where White spent weekends earning his flimsy “credential.” The reformer web is interwoven.)

Part II of New Orleans’ Recovery School District: The Lie Unveiled will explore the state Board of Secondary and Elementary Education (BESE).

Mercedes Schneider, Ph.D., is a veteran educator and native of St. Bernard Parish. She earned her doctoral degree in applied statistics and research methods, with a counselor education concentration from the University of Northern Colorado. Before returning to the New Orleans metropolitan area, she was a faculty member in the Department of Educational Psychology, Teachers College, at Ball State University.

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