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Archive for August, 2012

Coco, Still Cuckoo for Coco Puffs, Crows City Council Conspiracy

As faithful readers know, I’ve never been a fan of Steve Coco, the former Rapides Parish Police Juror and semi-professional teleprompter reader. A few years ago, Mr. Coco, a Republican, after retiring as an evening news anchor from the local NBC affiliate, launched a website, cenlanews.com, generously and hilariously calling himself “Central Louisiana’s most qualified, experienced news source.” Since its inception, Mr. Coco’s website has been continuously plagued by the facts and has been largely concerned with his own personal vendettas. It’s never been a news site, and even as a blog, it’s not particularly well-written or clever.

Steve Coco Actually Posed For And Then Published This Photo Of Himself. Seriously.

Ordinarily, it would have been easy enough to ignore, except that in Central Louisiana, Steve Coco, by virtue of his on-camera job with KALB-TV, is widely-known as a personality. And, more importantly, until his recent defeat, Steve Coco was an elected member of the Rapides Parish Police Jury, representing part of the City of Alexandria. And now, Steve Coco is running to become Alexandria’s next at-large member of the City Council.

To be sure, I’ve never considered Mr. Coco a credible journalist, but because he was an elected official who published his very own “news” website, I’ve paid attention. (It’s worth noting that Coco’s first campaign appears to have been funded, almost entirely, by his girlfriend at the time and that he won that election by only two votes).

Mr. Coco’s brief stint on the Police Jury was utterly unremarkable. During his four years, he didn’t introduce a single piece of meaningful legislation and apparently spent quite a bit of time with the late Greg Aymond, a controversial and often incendiary blogger and former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. Coco also spent a lot of time hammering out missives on his website. Among my personal favorites, he reported that the National Association of County Officials had published an (obviously-doctored) photograph of President Obama smoking a cigarette, writing:

Since blatant ignorance reigns unchecked in Cenla, here’s background information on this photo of Barack Obama (The White House Marlboro Man).

Several people continue to claim the picture is a fake. Evidently they believe it’s impossible that there’s any evidence of Obama having a cigarette in his mouth and that he could be smoking in the White House and aboard Air Force One. This picture was published by NACO, the National Association of Counties, founded in 1935. NACO’s membership totals more than 2-thousand counties, representing over 80% of the nation’s population. NACO headquarters is on Capitol Hill, publishing a biweekly newspaper, County News, that focuses on issues and actions in Washington, D.C. and around the Country.

NACO officials meet regularly with the President at the White House. Maybe that’s where they took the picture.

If you still think the picture’s a fake, prove otherwise.

So, here’s what I did: I contacted the President of NACo, and she wrote me back. She’d never even seen the photo Mr. Coco had published and attributed to her organization until I sent it to her. It’s no secret that President Obama, like John Boehner, was a smoker. The story was that an elected official claimed that the National Association of Counties had verified the authenticity of a doctored photograph of the President of the United States and then distributed it to its members; Mr. Coco, then an elected official, was unwittingly calling into question the integrity and the credibility of a venerable public service organization. And he was absolutely wrong. It was amateurish.

Mr. Coco, as a Police Juror, also fought, at least initially, to ensure that federal disaster relief funds distributed to Rapides Parish in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav would disproportionately benefit the least-affected areas, and as far as I can gather, his position at the time had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with his disdain for Mayor Jacques Roy, who was fighting to ensure an equitable dispersement of funds. Again, Mr. Coco was absolutely wrong, and again, it was amateurish.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how Steve Coco once publicly called on me to be fired for having the audacity to truthfully report that he, as a public official, had been receiving gratuitous radio time and advertisements. I suggested that he was an “unpaid employee” of the radio station with which he was associated, and Mr. Coco shot back, challenging me to offer proof. It was easy enough: I simply had to direct Mr. Coco to his own campaign finance disclosure forms.

I’ve called him out in the past, and I’m more than happy to continue calling him out: Mr. Coco is not fit to serve on the Alexandria City Council. He is a self-aggrandizing hack, an insult to anyone who believes in journalistic integrity, and a man who has repeatedly and publicly lied about basic facts. And I know I sound harsh, but here’s why: Yesterday, only a few days after he qualified to run for Alexandria City Council, Steve Coco took to his website and suggested that there were widespread rumors that my friend and former boss, Mayor Jacques Roy, is “distracted by some serious personal problems.

Pardon my French, but Steve Coco: You are full of shit. I’ve always known you’re full of shit, but this really takes the cake: Floating the rumor that Jacques Roy has “serious personal problems” in order to brandish your own candidacy for City Council. It’s shameful, despicable even.

Unlike Steve Coco, I actually know Jacques. He’s family to me. Even though I’ve been in Dallas for over a year, we still talk at least once a week. I went on vacation with him and his family a couple of months ago, something I’ve done every year for the last five years. You, Mr. Coco, don’t know what you’re talking about, and publicly accusing someone of suffering from “serious personal problems” is a mighty strong accusation. It’s high-time that someone finally disputes the bullshit rumors that you and Greg Aymond have attempted to float throughout the last few years and to call you out for what you really are: Just like Mr. Aymond, you are a divisive, mean-spirited liar, a sophomoric and sloppy writer, and an intellectual lightweight.

And in November, we’ll remember, once again, that Steve Coco is also something else: A loser.

A User’s Guide to Governor Bobby Jindal’s School Voucher Program

Six months ago, when Governor Bobby Jindal began rolling out his education reform initiative, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial praising Jindal’s ambitious agenda, comparing it, earnestly, with then-Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s vision of an American colony on the moon. The paper called Jindal’s proposals on education reform his “moon shot,” providing me with the perfect opportunity to write a post titled “Bobby Jindal Is Mooning Louisiana.” “Bobby Jindal Is Mooning Louisiana” quickly became the most popular post I’ve ever written, and, to me, it was a clear sign that Governor Jindal’s agenda, while praised by his friends on the right and in the conservative media, was likely to become hugely controversial.

At the time, I was concerned that Governor Jindal’s critics were readily playing right into his hands. While Jindal and his hand-selected Superintendent of Education, John White, were attempting to pass the nation’s largest-ever school voucher program, many of his critics were seemingly more concerned with the Governor’s plans for tenure reform, which allowed Jindal to easily deflect the substantive questions about privatization and focus, instead, on counterattacking teachers unions as more concerned with money than school children. It was, without question, an unfair and offensive depiction, and I have to believe that many of his critics, including the leaders of those teachers unions who were suddenly being defined by the Governor and members of his administration as uncaring and self-interested, were caught off-guard by the Governor questioning their integrity. After all, when Bobby Jindal was on the campaign trail, he paid lip-service to the need to increase teacher salaries, which remain among the lowest in the nation.

But as I wrote back in February and as I continue to believe today, with all due respect to our fine teachers, the real threat that Governor Bobby Jindal’s plan poses to public education has very little to do with his efforts to change the teacher-pay matrix and the ways in which we award tenure; the real threat is that Jindal intends on using taxpayer dollars to create a parallel, unaccountable, privately-owned, profit-motivated system of religious schools. And by divesting tens of millions from the public school system and investing these public dollars into religious schools, Governor Jindal’s program will guarantee the firing of hundreds, if not thousands, of Louisiana teachers. Already, Lincoln Parish has announced the layoffs of thirty public school teachers as a direct result of the voucher program.

Importantly, these religious schools are not constrained by the teacher qualification requirements imposed on public schools; that is, teachers in private schools, who are typically paid less than their public school counterparts, aren’t required to be certified or even knowledgeable in their subject matter. Moreover, these religious schools do not have to adhere to the same core curriculum that Louisiana requires for its public schools.

In ostensibly attempting to establish a program that allegedly would provide parents with the opportunity to use public dollars to remove their child from a struggling or “failing” public school, Governor Bobby Jindal and Superintendent John White have actually facilitated the creation of a separate and unequal system of religious schools, schools that are not held to any real accountability, schools that are not required to employ certified teachers, schools that do not have to adhere to the same curriculum standards. And in so doing, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White are ensuring a substantial disinvestment from the public schools most in need and the elimination of hundreds of jobs. Under this scheme, the failure of public schools becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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But that is only one part of the story. Policy and ideological objections to school vouchers aren’t new, and they’ve been debated and litigated all over the country, with mixed results. There’s something strikingly unique about Bobby Jindal’s plan. When it was up for debate in the Louisiana legislature, Governor Jindal and his allies ensured that his critics were all but shut out of the debate; they relied on procedural maneuvers to pass the bulk of his plan in the middle of the night. And once passed and signed into law, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White began implementing this plan in a way that could only be described as embarrassingly incompetent.

They didn’t think it was necessary to enforce standards for the schools they qualified for funding. The process became a free-for-all, with fly-by-night schools applying and then being qualified for millions in taxpayer subsidization, without ever being subjected to any scrutiny whatsoever.

When Superintendent White published the list of the schools that had qualified for voucher funding, the story suddenly began to take shape. My friends at The Daily Kingfish were actually the very first to report on the fact that the overwhelming majority of voucher funding was awarded to schools created by or associated with a church, 92% in total. It took the mainstream media over a month to catch up.

And then, a funny thing happened: We started really investigating the schools on the list. The Monroe News-Star broke the story of the New Living Word School, which received more voucher spots than any other school in the state and which relies on DVDs instead of teachers and is housed in a church gymnasium. John White approved increasing New Living Word’s enrollment by 258%, without ever even stepping foot in its campus. A few days ago, we learned that New Living Word, in order to accommodate the massive influx of new students, will be dividing its chapel into four classrooms.

After the story made national headlines, leaked e-mails revealed that Superintendent White had proposed to his colleagues that they create a news story about the process by which schools qualified for vouchers in order to “muddy up the narrative.” In almost any other state, the explicit acknowledgment by the head of a state agency to manufacture a false story to the public would be grounds for termination, but John White kept his job. And, instead of apologizing, he feigned outrage that his private e-mails had been released to the media.

About a week after the New Living Word story broke, The Town Talk reported that another school that Superintendent White had qualified for $400,000 in vouchers was led, in part, by a woman who previously pled guilty to extorting thousands of dollars from the school.  That school, thankfully, has subsequently been disqualified.

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The slow drip of the news about the merits of these voucher schools piqued my interest, and it also piqued the interest of my friend Zack Kopplin, the Baton Rouge native who is currently a sophomore at my alma mater (and his parents’s alma mater), Rice University.  We swapped stories, including this one, which was published on AlterNet on June 18th. According to AlterNet, some of the schools that had qualified for vouchers in Louisiana were using textbooks that advanced, among other things, the idea that the Loch Ness monster was alive and well and that, therefore, its existence disproved the theory of evolution.

Zack, for those of you who don’t know, had previously made national and even international news, as a high school student, for challenging the Louisiana Science Education Act, a pernicious piece of legislation, endorsed by Governor Jindal, that implicitly allows the teaching of new earth creationism in the science classroom. When Zack read about the textbooks that some of these voucher schools were using, he immediately recognized the implications. I sent him a link to John White’s “master list” of approved voucher schools, a list that, only a few days ago, was taken offline, and he spent the next week parsing the list, identifying schools that raised suspicion, and then exhaustively researching each and every one of those schools.

The more he uncovered, the more obvious it became that he was sitting on a much bigger story than AlterNet had initially reported. And for me, it also raised some serious questions: I have no doubt that Zack is a preternaturally smart and savvy guy, but here’s a 19-year-old college sophomore on summer break conducting the due diligence on voucher schools that should have already been done, months beforehand, by the Louisiana Superintendent of Education and his staff. Zack found that at least twenty of the approved schools teach new earth creationism instead of science, but, truthfully, that was only the tip of the iceberg. Many, if not most, of these schools advance a virulently anti-scientific curriculum. And most disturbingly, if a student objects, many of them reserve the right to expel the student on religious grounds, meaning that these schools, literally, will be pocketing taxpayer funding from students against whom they will discriminate on the basis of religion. It’s a foregone conclusion: Under Jindal’s plan, we will be spending public dollars to help prop-up schools that discriminate against students because of their religion.

This, most assuredly, is not the country that Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Religious discrimination is not the only issue. Schools may also discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation. And because voucher schools are not required to accommodate disabled students and students with special needs, many worry that the program will ultimately create a unconstitutional “separate” education system for the disabled.

After Zack published his findings (which were immediately republished here and on The Daily Kingfish), it took around a week for the mainstream media to pay attention, but once they did, they were relentless. And there are no signs of letting up.

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Superintendent John White, however, would, understandably, prefer to change the subject as quickly as humanly possible. He doesn’t want to admit that he and his entire department completely and utterly failed to properly scrutinize the schools they qualified for massive taxpayer subsidization. While arguing that he simply wants to ensure that parents are armed with all of the information needed to provide them with the ability to make a “choice” on their child’s education, Superintendent John White has removed the list of schools that he qualified for vouchers from the Department of Education’s website, and currently, he is refusing to cooperate with the request for records pertaining to his selection process. He’s also been accused of subverting the state’s open meetings laws by improperly participating “walking quorums” with BESE board members.  Again, in almost any other state in the country, this man would have already been fired, but this is Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana; he’s Bobby Jindal’s Superintendent, and this is Bobby Jindal’s “moon shot.”

A few days ago, after the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to grant an injunction against the voucher program, John White quickly declared moral and legal victory, when anyone with a shred of honesty and an ounce of integrity would readily recognize that the court’s refusal had nothing to do with the merits of vouchers and was based, entirely, on John White’s disingenuous affidavit that an injunction would create a $3.4 billion deficit. I wrote about this a couple of days ago, and yesterday, Mike Hasten of Gannett backed me up.

Yesterday, we also learned that Superintendent White is finally acknowledging the need to more thoroughly scrutinize the private schools he approved for voucher funding, telling Mr. Hasten, “Conditions have changed such that the nonpublic approval process now has greater importance.” Nothing about these schools has changed; the only conditions that changed, as far as I can tell, is that John White’s decisions have been repeatedly criticized by the state and national media.

In the last two weeks, not only has this story been the subject of headline articles in every major news publication in the State of Louisiana, it’s also been featured in The Washington PostEsquire MagazineThe Huffington Post, “Hardball” with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, the Associated Press, and Reuters. In addition, the story was also picked up by prominent education policy scholar Diane Ravitch,  Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley, LSU professor Bob Mann, and the website Above the Law, among others.

The coverage has been intense and interesting, and with only a couple of minor corrections, the national coverage has been, for the most part pitch-perfect.

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As awesome as I think it is that Zack’s research on creationist schools and my research on the profiteering prophet (which inspired a brilliant and hilarious editorial by Clancy DuBos of The Gambit and another great report by Lafayette’s The Independent Weekly) have made statewide and national news, it also worries me. Again, if a couple of college students on summer break can easily learn more about the schools that qualified for public subsidization than the department that approved them for funding, then, clearly, our leaders and elected officials are not doing their jobs.

In Louisiana, when people attempt to divert attention or weasel their way out, we call it “crawfishing.” And apparently, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White, just like crawfish, prefer muddied waters.

Thomas Jefferson: A Must-Read on Religious Freedom

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

By Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States of America

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,

That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,

That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;

That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right

- Thomas Jefferson

 

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