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Louisiana Education Superintendent Spends $145,000/Year On California-Based “Motivational Speaker” To Promote Privatization

Just in case you required any additional evidence that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and State Superintendent of Education John White are attempting to implement a large-scale privatization of the state’s public education system, consider this: Earlier this month, it was revealed that Superintendent White is paying Doug “Lefty” Lefkowith, a California-based, self-identified “motivational speaker,” $145,000 a year to serve as a “Director of Content” in the Louisiana Department of Education. To be sure, Lefkowith’s actual title remains somewhat ambiguous, but his record is pretty straightforward. Thanks, in large part, to the yeomen’s effort of Tom Aswell at the Louisiana Voice, we know that Lefkowith has built his career as a consultant promoting privatization initiatives. Quoting:

It turns out that Dave “Lefty” Lefkowith, DOE’s new Director of the Office of Portfolio, has quite a past, with strong connections to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the infamous Enron Corp. and a spinoff company called Azurix. ….

Our initial request for public records resulted in the disclosure that Lefty was an employee of DOE. The obligatory follow up request for information revealed that the Louisiana taxpayers got him for a mere $144,999.88 a year, with a “free” Youtube video to boot, albeit a largely amateurish effort to hype DOE’s computer Course Content.

It might also be worth noting that on that video, Lefkowith gives himself a promotion—from being Director of the Office of Portfolio to Deputy Superintendent.

Mr. Lefkowith, according to Aswell, also worked to deregulate energy and privatize water in Florida, failed efforts that nonetheless earned him a consultancy position with the Florida Public Service Commission. In fairness, Mr. Lefkowith is, unquestionably, well-educated, having earned degrees at both Yale and Stanford, but his position and his work with the Louisiana Department of Education should be questioned: He appears to be a political consultant who specializes in privatization initiatives and who possesses none of the requisite experience one would ordinarily need to become a “Director of Content” or a “Deputy Superintendent” of a statewide public education department. So why, exactly, was Mr. Lefkowith hired? Tom Aswell references an “amateurish” YouTube video; “amateurish,” it turns out, is an understatement:

Aside from the criticisms of the videography, there is a much bigger story here. For months, I have focused on the ways in which the Louisiana voucher program intends to facilitate the privatization of our public education system. As Mr. Lefkowith’s video reveals, however, the voucher program is only a piece in the puzzle: The Course Choice program, which will be rolled out in 2013, is also about diverting public resources to prop up the same type of private, unaccountable education system, a system more concerned with profit than with results, a system that provides “licenses to hunt” instead of licenses to educate. Here’s a partial transcript of Mr. Lefkowith’s remarks (bold mine):

I’m going to leave the development of the course offering to your best judgment.

You’re going to need to operate like a business. You’re going to need to create a business. Now, the first thing you’re going to have to do is determine what your costs are going to be to create this service and to provide it. There’s instruction cost, there’s facility cost – you may be used to the school, just showing up and there’s your classroom. Well, in this world you’re going to have to make arrangements for your facility – it may be in a school, it may be in a mall, it could be anywhere – it could be online. You have to figure out what you’re going to spend in terms of facilities, or virtual facilities.

You’re going to have to do some marketing and selling. Even if you go through the process of applying for Course Choice and getting accepted and going through the interview and getting final approval from BESE, that’s just a license to hunt. You’ve got to go out and get students to sign up for your course offering. You’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to do that. Maybe you’re going to fly an airplane over the LSU stadium saying “take my course,” maybe not.

And if you have no idea what you’re doing, fear not: Doug Lefkowith and his support staff at the Louisiana Department of Education will hold your hand through the entire application process.

The wonder of the market, right? Quoting from Education Week’s article on the Lefkowitz video:

In Louisiana, the marketplace approach is allowing taxpayer dollars to flow to parochial schools that teach creationism rather than evolution. And the Course Choice program allows all sorts of entrepreneurs to set up anywhere, or offer courses online.

This is the wonder of the market. It allows anyone access to public funds for whatever sort of education they want. It allows parents to use public funding to send their children to largely segregated schools, private schools, religious schools, or to stay at home and take virtual courses. These systems were first promoted back in the early 1960s, when the government began actively pushing for desegregation. How this advances the cause of Civil Rights is a mystery to me, and one that advocates of “choice” need to explain, especially as the consequences of privatization manifest themselves.

Louisiana Voucher Program Props Up Propaganda, Funds Fundamentalists

This Thursday, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will meet to discuss the “criteria for school participation in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Programs (sic),” more commonly known as the Louisiana voucher program. At this point, it should be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that Louisiana’s school voucher program, a program that had been touted a few months ago by The Wall Street Journal as Governor Bobby Jindal’s “moon shot,” is already an epic failure, a grand and almost comical embarrassment, and one of the best examples of government incompetence and dereliction in modern Louisiana history, which is saying a lot. It is also a program that Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has looked to as a model for the entire country, a claim that seems to be based more on Romney’s support of Governor Jindal as a campaign surrogate than anything else.

I am not being unnecessarily hyperbolic or flippant: The Louisiana voucher program has, from its very beginning, been controversial; the real problem, however, is that its implementation has been plagued and defined by executive and institutional failures. It’s been embarrassing and disheartening, and as I will later explain, it’s even worse than you may think.

Conservative policymakers believe that taxpayer-funded school vouchers may be a panacea, a sure-fire way for Louisiana to finally provide public school kids with the opportunity to attend good schools. This, of course, is a complete lie: Vouchers disinvest from public education, better ensuring that the failure of public education becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

But even more importantly, private schools in Louisiana– the parallel education system that Governor Bobby Jindal and Superintendent John White seek to prop up–  are actually among the worst-performing schools in the entire country. To be sure, there are a very small handful of great private schools in Louisiana, none of which ever even considered applying for voucher slots.

The incontroverible truth is that private schools in Louisiana are, on the whole, significantly worse than public schools, and Governor Bobby Jindal and Superintendent John White, along with the support of the majority of the Louisiana legislature, have decided, as a matter of policy, to strip public funding away from struggling public schools and give taxpayer money to unaccountable, underperforming, and fly-by-night private schools. Stated another way, their policy, as public servants, is to take money away from publicly-owned assets and institutions, and provide those resources to failing and unaccountable religious institutions.

The Louisiana voucher program isn’t concerned with saving education; it’s primarily focused on using public funds to build and promote radical fundamentalist churches.

I’ve previously written about what many of these voucher schools teach.  A few months ago, my friend Zack Kopplin uncovered a treasure trove, twenty voucher schools that each boasted and advertised their promotion of New Earth Creationism as legitimate science. In only a couple of days, Zack discovered that nearly 17% of the schools participating in the Louisiana voucher program were self-identified creationists, taxpayer-funded schools who promote the stupid, absurd, and offensive beliefs that science is illegitimate, the universe is only 6,000 years old, dinosaurs were assigned a dorm on Noah’s Ark, and evolution is a liberal conspiracy.

And I’ll give credit where credit is due: Yesterday, Zack uncovered something crazy about these schools, something even he, at first, couldn’t initially believe; it’s that unexpectedly crazy

Both Zack and I have written about the curricula and the educational standards of private schools that qualified for voucher funding: Schools that teach the Loch Ness Monster is a living dinosaur in Scotland whose existence disproves the theory of evolution, schools that suggest the Ku Klux Klan promoted morality, and schools that reject certain types of “math” as unfaithful, among many other incredible things.

We were not exaggerating. This is not a joke, and these schools are not isolated.

As it turns out, numerous voucher schools use this curriculum. All together, they represent a sizable minority, if not a majority, of schools qualified for voucher funding. Again, this is crazier than we’d anticipated, and thankfully, it’s all in writing.

Behold, the philosophy behind their history curriculum:

Ever since H. G. Wells published his Outline of History in 1920, the theme of world history texts has been man’s supposed progress from savagery toward socialism, from tribal religions toward one-world government. American history is usually presented as a series of conflicts—rich vs. poor, black vs. white, North vs. South, labor vs. management, male vs. female, etc.

A Beka Book history texts reject the Marxist/Hegelian conflict theory of history in favor of a truthful portrayal of peoples, lands, religions, ideals, heroes, triumphs, and setbacks. The result is positive, uplifting history texts that give students an historical perspective and instill within them an intelligent pride for their own country and a desire to help it back to its traditional values.

We present government as ordained by God for the maintenance of law and order, not as a cure-all for humanity’s problems. We present free-enterprise economics without apology and point out the dangers of Communism, socialism, and liberalism to the well-being of people across the globe. In short, A Beka Book offers a traditional, conservative approach to the study of what man has done with the time he has been given.

H.G. Wells, the man who wrote The Time Machine, is responsible for perverting history. History, apparently, has nothing to do with conflict; it’s all about how God ordained American government.

Here’s how these schools teach science:

While secular science textbooks present modern science as the opposite of faith, the A Beka Book science texts teach that modern science is the product of Western man’s return to the Scriptures after the Protestant Reformation, leading to his desire to understand and subdue the earth, which he saw as the orderly, law-­abiding creation of the God of the Bible.

The A Beka Book Science and Health Program presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution. Further, the books present God as the Great Designer and Lawgiver, without Whom the evident design and laws of nature would be inexplicable. They give a solid foundation in all areas of science—a foundation firmly anchored to Scriptural truth. Teachability is assured through accurate, interesting writing, carefully planned demonstrations that can be performed with a minimum of equipment, chapter terms and questions, full-color illustrations, consideration of the interests and comprehension skills of students at each grade level, and detailed Curriculum/Lesson Plans.

Let’s all be clear: This is Bobby Jindal’s education system; this is what Bobby Jindal values and seeks to promote. And it’s pathetic. It’s completely fair to blame Governor Jindal for this fiasco; he is responsible for propping up and funding this nonsense. This is his “moon shot.”

If, like me, you’ve followed Bobby Jindal’s career, it’s difficult to not feel painfully embarrassed for him, and it’s perhaps even more difficult to ignore the awkward shame he has carried about his own definitively American story. During the last thirty years, Bobby Jindal has continually disavowed his own ethnic, cultural, and religious identity.

As Jindal’s own biography reveals, he’s never seemed comfortable with his ethnicity or his heritage. He changed his name, on his own, when he was a child, anglicizing it, renaming himself after the little boy on the “Brady Bunch.” He refused to be known by his given name, Piyush, and insisted instead on being called “Bobby.” When his critics refer to him as “Piyush,” his legal name, they are sometimes accused of being racist, and to be honest, I get it; sometimes, the critics of Jindal do sound racist.

But I also think it’s bizarre: Jindal renamed himself; that is unusual. (For what it’s worth, in my opinion, “Pi” is a much better and much cooler nickname than “Bobby”). As a teenager, Jindal also converted from Hinduism to Catholicism, and his conversion was not a quiet, contemplative, personal experience: Jindal was loud, obnoxious, and purposely public about it. Among other things, he bragged about participating in a comically absurd “exorcism,” not only to his friends but also to the readers of a major worldwide Catholic journal.

Jindal’s exorcism essay continues to be one of the weirdest things published by a major American political leader (it may be THE single weirdest thing), and not surprisingly, Jindal’s never spoken a single word on the subject. I’ll take his reticence at face value: He’s embarrassed; it’s embarrassing.

When he ran for Governor in 2007, the Louisiana Democratic Party was pummeled after it ran commercials criticizing Jindal on religion; the ads essentially accused Jindal of being a hardline, anti-abortion Catholic, and they may have been the dumbest political attacks ads in Louisiana history.  The Louisiana Democratic Party sat on this enormously weird, nationally significant story about Bobby Jindal participating in an unsanctioned exorcism, a story that Jindal actually decided to tell himself, a story that, upon closer inspection, revealed itself to be self-incriminating, demonstrating that Jindal and his peers were guilty of at least one count of false imprisonment. Instead of criticizing Jindal for his disingenuousness, radicalism, and his own written statements, the Louisiana Democratic Party somehow managed to avoid the exorcism narrative altogether and come across as vehemently anti-Catholic. (Thankfully, the party is now under new leadership and management). Forgive my extended digression, but I’ve never believed in Bobby Jindal’s exorcism story. It’s manifestly false. I’ve taken more than my fair share of college writing workshops: Jindal’s a liar. His story is a lie, an obvious, enormous, flat-out, disqualifying, self-aggrandizing lie. Give me a break: Bobby Jindal never participated in an exorcism; he was at Brown for crying out loud. Seriously. At this point, you’d think that at least one of the dozen plus people that Jindal claimed witnessed this exorcism would have already come forward to confirm this insanity. The truth is, as tough as it may be for some to stomach, Jindal’s been trying so hard for his entire life to present himself as a true believer; the Louisiana Democratic Party didn’t need to run ads about Jindal’s Catholicism. They only did that because they were terrified to run anything about his exorcism story.

I’ll make it easy: Bobby Jindal lied about participating in an exorcism, and the moment a real journalist asks Governor Jindal to be honest about this, we’ll be better. (Pro-tip: Ask 1. Who is Susan and what is she doing today? 2. Did any ordained Catholic priest supervise your so-called exorcism? 3. WHY? Seriously, why? It’s so weird and unusual. And frankly, no one believes you exorcised a girl who had a crush on you at Brown or that you cured her of skin cancer. 4. No question. Just a reminder: You won’t be able to ignore this forever, Governor Jindal).

Regardless, let’s not be mistaken here: Bobby Jindal is a self-identified religious wingnut, and as Governor of Louisiana, he’s promoted and endorsed a series of radical, fundamentalist policies; his plan for school vouchers has nothing to do with education and almost everything to do with funding far-right churches. To be sure, I am remain unsure about whether Jindal’s religiosity is authentic or whether he’s merely an exploitative, self-hating political hack.

Considering Governor Jindal still can’t figure out what church he belongs and considering he continues to spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on Sunday morning helicopter tours of rural North Louisiana churches, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: I’ll assume that he is and always been an opportunistic fraud, because the alternative is even worse.

Barack Obama Deserves A Second Term

A couple of months ago, I volunteered to teach law and government, for an hour every week, at a nearby public elementary school. Already, I can say, without hesitation, that this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It’s reinforced my belief in public education. First, I work with an exceptional teacher, a woman who exemplifies the absolute best of her profession, one of those teachers who, years later, will be remembered by her students as a person who made a difference in their lives. She also immediately reminded me of one of my best friends, Maggie Dyer, who has been teaching in the Louisiana public school system for the last several years, one of those rare people who treat their students with the same kindness and discipline as they would give to their own children.

There’s another thing: It’s an inner city school for the gifted and talented. 90% of students are either Hispanic or African-American. And they are all brilliant and precocious and incredibly eager to learn. You can’t help but be inspired.

Before I started volunteering, I attended a briefing on the program: This is what you need to teach; this is how you need to teach it, and this is who you’ll be teaching. And during this briefing, the instructor said, more than once, to remember that every single kid we’d be teaching was born after September 11, 2001. “They’ve never known what it is like to live in peacetime. We have been at war for their entire lives.”

It stung me: American children only know a country at war.

In 2007, I decided to support then-Senator Barack Obama over any other candidate for a very simple reason: He had initially, consistently, and publicly opposed the War in Iraq. That was, to me, the only logical position one could have possibly taken. It is easy, now, to engage in revisionist history, to suggest that we merely acted on intelligence that subsequently proved to be faulty. The truth, however difficult it may be for some to stomach, is that when America decided to invade Iraq, we knew or should have known that it was bound to be a fiasco; we knew that Saddam Hussein, however nefarious and awful he may have been, never possessed any weapons of mass destruction. He was gloating and purposely insincere, and he was hedging his bets that we’d see right through his charade. He underestimated the steely resolve of a United States President who believed that the attacks of 9/11 provided him with a carte blanche mandate to vindicate, regardless of the facts.

At the time, it wasn’t politically popular to oppose the War in Iraq. Indeed, for some, opposition amounted to political suicide. But President George W. Bush and the Republicans spent almost all of their political capital, over a trillion dollars, and thousands of American lives in waging a war against Iraq, and by God, that had to mean something, even if the entire premise of the war was based on an easily-refuted lie.

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda attacked America on September 11, 2001. President Bush and the Republicans scared much of the country into believing otherwise, conflating the entire Muslim world as some monolithic terrorist enterprise, while paying lip-service to religious freedom.

If Hillary Clinton hadn’t voted in favor of the War in Iraq, she would be running for her second-term as President.

The notion that Americans favored Barack Obama merely because he could deliver a great speech or because he represented a “symbolic” change makes for a compelling media narrative, but it’s simply not accurate: More than anything else, Barack Obama became the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party because he, very early on, took an intellectually honest position against the War in Iraq. We needed an intellectually honest and intellectually consistent leader, and that is precisely why Democrats gravitated to Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008.

Four years after his historic election, there should be no doubt: Barack Obama deserves a second term.

We will never have a perfect President, but right now, Americans are led by a smart and principled man, a man who is revered around the world, and a man who, though he and his campaign will not brandish it, won the Nobel Peace Prize during his first year.

Throughout the last four years, the attacks against President Obama have, for the most part, lacked in substance. They’ve centered on his “otherness,” the easily disputed theories of his birthplace and his religion, theories that have been floated and perpetuated primarily by wealthy white people like Donald Trump and Andrew Breitbart. It’s politics as entertainment, and as fun as it may be, it’s not serious. President Obama has also, more recently, been criticized for a slower-than-expected economic recovery. That is a more legitimate critique, but it still falls short. For one, his Republican opponents are much more responsible for the nation’s economic mess: Their policies during the Bush administration created this fiasco, and their recent intransigence has only exacerbated it. We need to be honest with one another on this. The stimulus worked; the auto bailout saved over a million jobs; housing starts are up; consumer confidence is up; we’ve created more than 5 million private-sector jobs, and the stock market has doubled since he took office.

Obamacare, his signature legislative achievement, will likely be remembered as one of the greatest accomplishments in American history, an idea that was ironically co-opted from Mitt Romney. In only a decade, Americans won’t debate the merits of health care as a fundamental right; it will be enshrined as plainly obvious.

President Obama’s work on civil rights is also worthy of praise: He’s boldly taken a stand in favor of gay marriage. He’s ended the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. And the very first piece of legislation that he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which ensures equal pay protection for women.

And on foreign policy, President Obama has been even more impressive. He ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden; he’s obliterated America’s number one enemy, Al Qaeda; he’s ended the War in Iraq; he’s currently ending the War in Afghanistan, thank God.

Now, has he been everything we had hoped he’d be? Of course not. I, for one, am still troubled by the suspension of due process against suspected terrorists, the proliferation of drone attacks, and the increased enforcement in the misguided War on Drugs. But I know this: Barack Obama is and will always be a better President than Mitt Romney could ever become. Romney would take this country backwards; if elected, he would install the same political and policy machinery that propped up George W. Bush for eight years. If you seriously care more about a three percent increase in the federal income tax for American millionaires– if you think that will destroy the country– then vote for Romney. Go ahead. If, like me, you understand that American wealth is a function of American ingenuity and that shared sacrifice is a virtue and not a curse, then vote for the incumbent.

I think about that class of fifth graders, who have never known America not at war. I think about their futures. I’m voting for the guy who wants to end war. He’s not a perfect candidate, but he’s earned my trust.

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