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Bobby Jindal’s Voucher Program: Public Dollars Will Enrich and Fund Radical, Fringe “Religious” Schools

A month ago, the Jindal administration and State Superintendent John White announced a list of private and charter schools that had qualified to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers, the cornerstone of Governor Jindal’s controversial plan to “reform” the Louisiana education system. According to an analysis by my friends at The Daily Kingfish, of the 125 schools that were approved, 115 of them (or 92%) “are affiliated with a church or other religious organization.” This, in and of itself, should not be too surprising; after all, the overwhelming majority of private schools in Louisiana are either affiliated with a church or a religious organization, and when Governor Jindal first announced his intention to shift public education money to private schools through vouchers, it should have been obvious that religious schools and institutions would be the largest beneficiary.

Less than a week after announcing the list of schools that qualified for these vouchers, the Monroe News-Star and the Washington Post published explosive stories about the merits of two of those 125 schools, the New Living Word School in Lincoln Parish and the Eternity Christian Academy in Calcasieu Parish. Both are small schools operating on small budgets. Both are struggling. Eternity Christian Academy only has fourteen students. The New Living Word School, which has 122 students, doesn’t even have its own campus. Yet Governor Jindal and his administration approved providing these schools with millions of dollars in publicly-subsidized vouchers. If all goes according to plan, Eternity Christian Academy will expand from fourteen students to 135, and New Living Word, which admittedly does not have the requisite faculty or infrastructure, will more than double their enrollment, even if it means they have to conduct classes in the church gym.

The critical point, which is often missing, is this: These schools are not charities, regardless of how they are legally incorporated. Both of these schools are seeking to use the voucher program to fund, almost entirely, their expansions. Both are religious institutions that hope to use a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars to underwrite their infrastructure and their operations. As our public schools continue to suffer from disinvestment and disrepair, Governor Jindal plans to provide taxpayer dollars to untested, unaccountable, and inadequate “religious” schools. As the New Living Word School and Eternity Christian Academy both forcefully illustrate, Bobby Jindal’s “vouchers” aren’t merely about school choice; they’re about providing seed money for religious institutions who seek to dramatically expand their infrastructure and their bottom lines. And these two schools are not the only ones. Indeed, there are schools all over the state who recognize the cash cow; schools that charge $3,000 or $4,000 in tuition can suddenly charge the State $8,500, all the while maintaining a tax-exempt status.

In Central Louisiana, for example, there’s Cenla Christian Academy, a small school in Pineville that conducts classes in large, barn-like metal buildings next door to its benefactor, the Journey Church. Not surprisingly, the preacher at Journey Church is also the CEO of Cenla Christian Academy. And much like another religiously-affilated educational institution in Pineville, Louisiana, Cenla Christian Academy has, in the past, touted its bold, short-term, and almost embarrassingly ambitious plans for a new, state-of-the-art campus. For now, though, its facilities pale in comparison to its nearby “competition,” Pineville Junior High and Pineville High School, two public schools that have, in the last ten to fifteen years, heavily invested in new infrastructure.

But maybe not for long: Cenla Christian Academy was also approved for vouchers, and considering they currently charge $3,500 a year for elementary school and $3,600 a year for high school, the $8,500 that Governor Jindal promises to provide them for every voucher student could end up going a long way.

As I predicted months ago, well before Governor Jindal’s voucher plan was signed into law, Mr. Jindal’s ultimate goal is to create a parallel, private, undemocratic, and unaccountable education system, and as we now know, Mr. Jindal’s system also seeks to provide millions and millions of taxpayer dollars as a way of enriching and funding the livelihoods and the ambitions of his like-minded, staunchly conservative ideologues in the religious right. They hope to hide comfortably behind the notion that they’re simply performing Christian charity, that they’re providing a real education to kids who would otherwise be floundering in a woefully struggling public school, that their belief in vouchers is somehow a reflection of their own commitment to selfless public service. But let’s be honest with one another: That is absurd; this is about money, plain and simple.

Still, to a certain extent, the profit motive for many of these schools could be understood if they were genuinely committed to providing a rigorous education, an education that, objectively, surpassed anything offered by public schools. As others have already pointed out, the most prestigious private schools in Louisiana all declined to participate in the voucher program, schools like St. Thomas More, Jesuit, Newman, and Alexandria Country Day. By all indications, Governor Jindal’s program cannot and will not provide children in struggling public schools the ability to attend stellar private institutions; it will merely provide struggling, religious schools the ability to access far more tuition dollars than they could otherwise ever receive, draining money from public institutions so that churches on the radical religious right can expand their influence and their infrastructure.

Believe it or not, that’s not the most pernicious thing about Governor Jindal’s voucher program, a program that has already been embraced as a national model by Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. After all, what do I mean when I say “radical religious right”?

The most pernicious and most troubling thing about Governor Jindal’s program is that it unabashedly and blatantly incentivizes and underwrites schools that subscribe to and endorse the most corrosive, most ignorant, and most ridiculous educational curricula imaginable in 21st century America. Eternity Christian Academy and Cenla Christian Academy, for example, both follow curricula created by either Bob Jones or Advanced Christian Education (ACE), curricula that advances, among other things, a belief in the Loch Ness monster, a total rejection of evolution and a total acceptance of New Earth creationism, and the easily-refuted and thoroughly-debunked story of a Japanese fisherman who caught a dinosaur. And that’s just a sampling of what these schools teach in science classrooms. Their history curricula is just as absurd.

If you need more evidence, then watch this:

Governor Jindal’s program is not only unconstitutional in principle; it is cynically destructive, ethically questionable, and terribly corrosive in practice.

“Twelve Years A Slave” Being Adapted Into Major Motion Picture With All-Star Cast

Only a few months before she passed away, I passed along a “top secret” message to my Great Aunt Sue Eakin. Aunt Sue was, arguably, Central Louisiana’s most accomplished historian. She and her sister Manie wrote the textbook that, for decades, was used in seventh and eighth grade Louisiana history classes, so chances are, if you attended junior high in Louisiana, you’ve read her work. But without question, her greatest professional accomplishment was editing Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, reintroducing the seminal slave narrative to the American public, 115 years after it was originally published. Northup’s story, in many ways, was personal to Aunt Sue.

She, my grandmother Joanne, and their family were all born and raised in a small plantation on the banks of Bayou Boeuf, the setting for much of Northup’s book. As a professor at Louisiana State University at Alexandria (LSUA), Sue worked, as an academic, on the very same land that Northup had once lived as a slave. And as a lifelong resident of this small pocket of Louisiana and a dedicated historian, Aunt Sue embraced her role as its curator.

Three years ago, while working in the Mayor’s office in Alexandria, I learned that at least a couple of Hollywood producers were seriously considering adapting Twelve Years a Slave into a big budget motion picture. I even exchanged a few e-mails with one group. I didn’t want to get my hopes up; during the last few years, due, largely, to Louisiana’s aggressive incentives for movie productions, I’d heard all sorts of rumors about the Next Big Movie, most of which haven’t yet materialized. But this was different. The people who were expressing interest in Twelve Years a Slave weren’t scouting for locations or incentives; they were researching the source material. They wanted to speak with my Aunt Sue and her family. I called my grandmother. “This may not be for real,” I said, “but you should call your sister Sue and tell her that these Hollywood people want to talk to her about turning Twelve Years a Slave into a movie.” I knew that Sue, then ninety years old, was in poor health, that she wouldn’t be able to sit down for an interview. But I also knew how important it would be for her to know, in the twilight of her life, the story that had defined her professional career endured; that forty years after her edited version of Northup’s story was published, the story was still captivating people and that, maybe, just maybe, it was about to be told on the silver screen– to an audience not just of academics and historians but to the entire world. My grandmother called up her sister and told her the promising news. “She’s thrilled,” my grandmother reported back.

Aunt Sue passed away a few months later. Until a month ago, I hadn’t heard any news on the film’s development for over two years. And I suppose, cynically, I thought it had been shelved.

Boy was I wrong. I don’t know if the same folks with whom I had spoken are still involved in the project, but the news about this film is even bigger and grander than I had ever imagined.

Twelve Years a Slave is set to begin production this month. Directed by Steve McQueen and produced and starring Brad Pitt, the film already promises to be a blockbuster. Only three weeks ago, actors Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson joined the ensemble cast:

Helmer Steve McQueen continues to fill out the ensemble of his drama “Twelve Years a Slave,” as Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson have joined the cast of the New Regency pic based on Solomon Northrup’s 1853 nonfiction tome.

Duo joins Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scoot McNairy, Ruth Negga and Garret Dillahunt.

Ejiofor stars as the book’s author, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Paulson will play Fassbender’s jealous wife, while Giamatti will play Freeman, who takes possession of the slaves upon their arrival in New Orleans.

I don’t know if this film will be shot in Central Louisiana, but regardless, it tells one of the most significant stories in Central Louisiana history. This is big news for our region.

Kudos to the Eakin and the Lyles families, and three cheers for Aunt Sue, who spent her life telling and retelling a story she fiercely believed needed to be told.

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