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Why Do Some of America's Wealthiest Individuals Have Fingers in Louisiana's Education System? | The Nation

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Why Do Some of America's Wealthiest Individuals Have Fingers in Louisiana's Education System?

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Louisiana school board elections

Last fall, 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 twelve 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 teacher’s unions, by more than thirty-four to one: $472,382 to $13,815.

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Matthew Cunningham-Cook
Matthew Cunningham-Cook was a Nation intern in the summer of 2012. An activist and reporter in the labor...

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To support Orange Jones’s campaign against Givens, Eli Broad, billionaire head of the education reform organization the Broad Foundation and a major trainer and placer of school superintendents, chipped in $5,000. Reed Hastings of Netflix kicked in the same. Houston energy hedge fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura gave a total of $10,000, as did Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner and her husband Greg. New York City’s second-wealthiest man, Michael Bloomberg, contributed $10,000 as well.

Kira Orange Jones wasn’t the only candidate for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who received previously unheard of levels of out-of-state cash. K12 Inc., an online education company, gave at least $12,000 to pro-reform BESE candidates and PACs. Siblings Alice and Jim Walton of the Walmart fortune gave more than $150,000 to candidates and PACs, and Michael Bloomberg gave a total of $330,000. In the end, only one candidate opposed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and education reformers actually won: Lottie Beebe, a public school personnel director who spent less than half of what her opponent spent. Compare this to the last BESE elections, in 2007. The total spent by all candidates in contested BESE races that year was just $258,596—roughly one-tenth of the 2011 total.

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 Louisiana’s 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.

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Besides the efficacy of drone warfare, one of the most common areas of bipartisan agreement in Washington—and in state capitals across the nation—is that our public school system is broken, and the way to fix it is by ridding schools of costly hold-downs such as teacher tenure, seniority pay, training for professional development and traditional brick-and-mortar school buildings. These “reformers” push charter schools, punishment for failing schools and teachers and “school choice” in the form of vouchers for private, parochial and charter schools.

Nowhere has the school reform debate raged more passionately in recent months than in Louisiana, where earlier this year Jindal and his allies rammed two bills through the Louisiana legislature that drastically reduce local control of schools and teacher tenure. The bills, which went into effect in July and August, also dramatically increase the number of charter schools—both brick-and-mortar and virtual charters (despite the fact that the FBI is currently investigating an epidemic of online charter school fraud in Pennsylvania)—and potentially 380,000 new vouchers for low- and middle-income children in poor-performing schools around the state, which would create by far the nation’s largest voucher program. The vouchers can be used at 120 schools in the state, some of them parochial, some of them secular, some of them for-profit, some of them nonprofit—almost all of them private.

While much of the reporting on these bills has focused on the fact that they will significantly lower the quality of education in Louisiana—through the voucher program, the state has begun funding schools that refuse to teach evolution, teach that the Loch Ness Monster is an example of scientific proof that humans and dinosaurs once coexisted and claim that the Ku Klux Klan had some positive impact on this nation’s history—little attention has been paid to the influx of out-of-state money to advance the education reform movement in Louisiana. And although the media have presented the case of Louisiana as anomalous—Wonkette’s Kris Benson asked “Is Louisiana not part of the U.S. anymore, or something?”—if one takes a longer view, it quickly becomes apparent that Louisiana is very much still part of the United States, and what has happened there is not anomalous but in fact is a test case for the privatization of education nationwide.

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John White occupies a special place in the heart of education reformers around the country. After serving as a deputy chancellor of New York City schools for five years under Michael Bloomberg, where he autocratically created Quest to Learn, a middle school with a video game-based curriculum, and was one of the leaders of the DoE’s campaign to close schools the department classified as “failing,” White became superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District in 2011. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the district rapidly expanded to include almost all New Orleans schools, in addition to other schools rated as “failing” throughout the state. Almost immediately after White’s appointment, his name was volleyed around for the position of state superintendent of education. And after five years of working with him in New York, Michael Bloomberg was going to do everything he could to make sure that his former aide would get the top job, donating more than $300,000 to pro-reform PACs and BESE candidates who would go on to approve White for the position. (The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

The BESE must approve the state superintendent, but it is also the state’s regulatory body for K-12 education. The BESE is charged with crafting policy and overseeing the implementation of education laws in the state, meaning they approve contracts with private schools that will receive voucher funding and designate which nonprofit organizations can be “charter authorizers,” in addition to generally writing regulatory policy as it relates to the massive overhaul of education in Louisiana. A reform-friendly BESE would not only approve a pro-reform state superintendent, it would happily implement privatization plans.

The new reform-minded board was sworn in on January 9, and two days later the BESE called a special meeting to confirm John White as state superintendent. It wasn’t long before the state’s political class, led by Governor Jindal, began discussing educational privatization on a scale incomparable to anywhere else in the nation, save for what happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

As Naomi Klein detailed in The Shock Doctrine, post-Katrina New Orleans has been Ground Zero for efforts to privatize schools and weaken teacher unions—hallmarks of education reform. After the hurricane, the vast majority of New Orleans public schools were taken over by the states’ Recovery School District—the district that was subsequently headed by John White. Nearly all of the city’s 7,500 public school employees were fired, although a few were later rehired. The post-Katrina shock also saw the advent of a limited voucher program and a massive expansion of charter schools, many of them for-profit. Education Secretary Arne Duncan actually said that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” and Michael Bloomberg repeated this position almost verbatim in a profile in Fast Company in 2011. And yet, the Recovery School District received a “D” on the state’s evaluation system in 2011, making it the second-lowest-performing district in the state.

But as Bobby Jindal began his second term as governor in January 2012, he was convinced that the path blazed in New Orleans needed to be applied statewide. With a sympathetic state board and superintendent in place, Jindal outlined his reform plan in a speech on January 17. The governor proposed limiting school boards’ right to give teachers tenure and expanding school administrators’ power of to hire and fire, in addition to a significant expansion of charter schools and the creation of a statewide voucher program.

Educators and activists were caught off-guard. “We didn’t have an inkling of what the governor’s education proposals were going to be until his speech on January 17,” said Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “Education wasn’t even part of the debate during the 2011 elections.”

Nevertheless, Jindal’s reform plan hit the ground running. State Representative Steve Carter introduced two bills modeled after the proposals in Jindal’s January speech on March 12, the first day of the legislative session. The two bills, now known as Act 1 — Talent, and Act 2 — Choice, are multifaceted. Act 1 deals primarily with limiting school boards’ ability to give tenure to teachers, as well as increasing the usage of teacher evaluations in making hiring decisions and giving superintendents considerably more latitude to hire and fire without the approval of their school board. (It is for this reason, among many others, that the Louisiana School Boards Association vehemently opposed both bills.) Act 2 focuses on the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. Under this new regime, nonprofit organizations can be given the authority to become charter authorizers, bypassing elected and public bodies. And any child below a certain income level attending a school rated C, D or F can receive a voucher to go to a private or parochial school. Act 2 also allows Louisiana businesses to receive funding from the state to provide apprenticeships, and allows charter and private schools to recruit uncertified teachers.

The legislative action on the bill was short but hard-fought. An estimated two thousand teachers rallied against the bill on March 14, but were not let into the committee room, which Karran Harper Royal, a leading activist who is a mother of a child with disabilities, told me was unprecedented in her years of advocating before the legislature. Michael Deshotels, a retired Louisiana educator, wrote on his blog that he witnessed only one teacher testify in favor of the bills.

On the other side, advocacy groups popped up to lobby in favor of the bills. Stand for Children Louisiana, which advocated primarily for the bill limiting teacher tenure, was founded in January 2012, according to Westley Bayas III, the organization’s New Orleans Director. (Nationally, Stand for Children has been a leader in the education reform movement, but has laid low after a deeply embarrassing video of its founder, Jonah Edelman, boasting of his union-busting playbook surfaced in 2011.) The Louisiana Federation for Children, a project of the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, two national pro-voucher organizations, also advocated for the bills. Although the organization did not return a request for comment, it also seems to have been started just as the statewide reform debate began—the first blog post on the organization’s site was in April 2011, and its official headquarters on campaign finance forms is oddly listed as Virginia. The bills also gained crucial PR support from John White, who wrote an e-mail to educators dismissing concerns about the bills as “myths.”

Less than a month after being introduced, the bills passed the House and Senate with barely any changes. Act 1 passed the House by a vote of 64 to 40, and the Senate by a vote of 23 to 16. Act 2 passed 61 to 42 in the House and 24 to 15 in the Senate. By April 18, just over a month after the bills were introduced, Jindal had signed them into law.

John Maginnis, the editor of LaPolitics.com, told me that they passed so quickly that many legislators are finding out just now what provisions are actually in the bills. Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said that the way the bills had passed was nothing like he had experienced before in his more than twenty years of educational advocacy. Comparing this year’s legislative climate around education as opposed to past years, Monaghan said, “It was a difference between night and day legislatively. We had two major pieces of legislation, introduced in the first three days of the session, moved through the entire process in just about thirty days.” He continued, “We’re talking about massive bills with far-reaching implications, these were multi-faceted bills that never had real debate. What the big difference was that there was money coming from all over the country. It’s literally follow-the-money.”

The fallout was almost immediate. There was widespread antipathy in the legislature to Jindal and the BESE’s proposal of taking funding for the voucher and charter program directly from public schools, a measure that passed the House by only 2 votes, 51 to 49. (Part of this antipathy likely stemmed from certain lawmakers’ realization that vouchers could be used at private Islamic schools.) Teachers have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the legality of the bills. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators argue that the two laws actually contain multiple laws within them, making them unconstitutional in Louisiana. Another lawsuit weaving its way through the system claims that the funding mechanism should have had to pass by an absolute majority—fifty-three votes—instead of the fifty-one that it received. Significantly, one of the BESE members elected under the “reform” agenda, Carolyn Hill, has found the new policies so odious that she has now come out against the bills.

But the passage appropriation mechanism made it clear what the entire education reform project in Louisiana was about: the state spends $8.7 billion dollars annually on education, and some exceedingly powerful private business interests want a piece of it.

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The powerful interests who donated to the BESE races, including Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, John and Laura Arnold, Carrie and Gregory Penner and Alice and Jim Walton, are all major supporters and funders of these “school choice” reforms nationally, and stand to gain even more influence and power now that Louisiana has bought into and legislated their education reform plans.

Less than 2 percent of eligible students are participating in the voucher program this year, avoiding a massive funding crisis for Louisiana public schools for now. However, nearly $30 million in public funding has been distributed through the voucher program. Lincoln Parish’s school district has already had to lay off thirty teachers, at least partly because of the voucher program, and the ability of many of these schools approved for vouchers to actually provide an adequate education is in serious question. For example, the Light City Christian Academy, which received $364,400 in public funds through the voucher program for 2012-2013 school year, is run by a self-proclaimed prophet. The New Living Word School, which received over $1 million in state funding for this school year, uses DVDs in place of teachers for the bulk of its educational content.

Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, says that despite the media focus on the voucher program, the bigger story is that of charter schools. “The pro-charter people, which include most of the research and advocacy interest groups, favor charter schools but were opposed to vouchers.” He explains, “Vouchers shift public funding into an already extant structure, but the charter schools open up an entire new market.… Every charter school in the state gets a facility for free, no rent. The old school is declared a failing school, they fire all the teachers, fires all students, and they have a whole new for-profit operation.”

The prospects for the expansion of charters was apparently so enticing that Kemal Oksuz, president of the Turquoise Council, a Texas-based group that is closely related to the rapidly growing Harmony Schools charter network as well as the Turkish Gulen religious movement, saw fit to contributed a total of $83,000 to the Republican Party of Louisiana after Act 1 and Act 2 passed in April. The contributions make Oksuz the largest single contributor to the Louisiana GOP this year. Anti-corporate education group Parents Across America considers Gulen-connected schools to be the largest network of charter schools in the United States.

Even further-reaching, the Course Choice program allows students to take courses outside of their public school and have the state reimburse them at 90 percent of the cost of a public school course. Looking to cash in on online course offerings, some of the vendors who have applied to provide these courses include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Apex Learning, K12 and Connections Education, a major subsidiary of Pearson. (The education reformers are a tight-knit bunch—the other Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, bankrolled a pro-Bloomberg group in New York called Learn NY when the Mayor was attempting to win himself a third term. Eli Broad also contributed millions.)

Construction companies are also likely to gain much from these new offerings. The Associated Builders and Contractors in Louisiana spent $55,000 influencing the BESE races, and they now stand to be directly reimbursed by the state for the cost of their apprenticeship programs—massively expanding a significant part of their business. The very large and very well-connected Cajun Industries, a member of the Associated Builders and Contractors, even had a PAC headquartered in one of its PO boxes to distribute money to friendly BESE candidates.

There has also been widespread outcry about John White’s decision to hold public schools to a higher educational standard than private and charter schools: under new rules released in July, public schools must score above a C to avoid having vouchers suck money away from them, while private schools only need to score above an F to continue receiving public money. In addition, only about a quarter of the private schools covered by the new bill will be required to disclose whether or not their voucher students are failing—only schools with more than forty voucher students, or ten in a grade, are required to disclose the test scores of their students. White has also attracted criticism for his opposition to the teacher certification process, hiring a 27-year-old without a teaching certificate to direct the state’s teacher evaluation, and his decision to hire a highly priced PR staff.

As the BESE and John White continue the rule-making process in the new pay-to-play educational environment in Louisiana, White’s scheduled first evaluation by the BESE has been postponed until January 2013. And despite the fact that staff members at the state’s Board of Ethics recommended that Kira Orange Jones be forced to choose between a seat on the BESE and her position with TFA, largely because of potential conflicts of interest in approving contracts with Teach for America, the board overrode their recommendation and said that Orange Jones’s position was safe. The BESE is likely to approve a nearly $1 million contract with Teach for America in October.

And now, in the races for the Orleans Parish School Board, which serves New Orleans, the money-drenched process seems to be repeating itself. Teach for America veteran Sarah Usdin has already outraised incumbent Brett Bonin by four to one, and activist Harper Royal by more than twenty to one. Usdin’s donors include Reed Hastings, who has given $2,500.

The initial results of education reform in Louisiana carry significant parallels to education reform initiatives around the country: in Philadelphia, the city-contracted Boston Consulting Group has effectively recommended the elimination of teacher tenure; Congress and President Obama recently agreed to a deal to expand the District of Columbia’s voucher program; the state of Indiana just doubled the size of their voucher program, and in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel is attempting to shutter more than eighty public schools and replace them with charters. As other experiments in wholesale privatization have indicated, the likely result of this is an acceleration of wealth and power into the hands of the 1 percent, while violence and political exclusion characterize the lives of everyone else. The same forces that have initiated this process in Louisiana are hard at work implementing their agenda elsewhere, and they have nearly unlimited resources at their disposal. There comes a time, however, when enough is enough.

Read Matthew Cunningham-Cook’s reporting on the Chicago teachers’ strike of earlier this fall here.

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