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.

****

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.

****

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.

22 thoughts

  1. this says it all.
    “it’s also been featured in The Washington Post, Esquire Magazine, The Huffington Post, “Hardball” with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, the Associated Press, and Reuters.”

  2. First of all, THANK YOU for posting this –speaks for itself posting: ““SHOCKING: Bobby Jindal’s Vouchers Will Provide Over $700,000 Per Year To School Led by “Prophet, Apostle.” https://cenlamar.com/2012/08/07/shocking-bobby-jindals-vouchers-will-provide-over-600000-per-year-to-school-led-by-prophet-apostle/” (I posted it on my website.)

    Secondly, my point is that for MANY reasons, Gov. Jindal’s school voucher program is alarming! Even people who do not have school aged children, and people who don’t work for school boards should be concerned dangerous potential of placing education into hands of some church leaders who are not what they profess to be –as well as likelihood of furthering political corruption and social oppression (via religion). Too many preachers & pastors (not all of them!) have more regard for politics and cronies, than ministry for God. Some are dangerously deluded, and should simply resign and cease abusing 501 (c) statuses. Sadly, the title of “pastor” doesn’t mean the same as bygone times when religious values truly mattered to all of the people who wore those religious titles. Furthermore, there is the appalling problem of CHARITY NONPROFIT FRAUD, and victimization as it pertains to awarding employment! *See more about preachers, politics, and nonprofits @ http://www.lawgrace.org/2012/08/11/nonprofit-charities-and-a-news-story-and-religion/

  3. Your paen of self-praise misses – or ignores – one thing: Several people, I among them, began sounding the alarm about the voucher program well before the Governor even brought it to the House and Senate Educaiton Commitees for consideration. We pointed out that private and parochial schools have never been held accountable to anyone – even the parents who paid full tuitions to send their children to them – and that the bills themselves offered no standards for schools chosen to receive tuition vouchers. (As an aside, most private and parochial school already receive millions of dollars in tax paid services including free tansportation and books, and usually offer no services to children with special needs – the most expensive of all to educate) We were also among the strongest and logical opponents of the bills in both committees. Unfortunately the teachers’ unions were allowed to dominate the hearings – leaving people with other objections literally only a few minutes at the end of hours-long hearings to raise our points of concern. No matter – the Jindal train had already left the station. The result of these new laws – force-fed through a compliant legislature including the majority fo the CenLa delegation – will not be clear for at least four years, since the laws allow no true evaluation until then and only of some of the studwents at some of the schools. Remember – when you allow one group to dominate a political conversation, you get the government, and the Governor, you deserve.

    1. Hey Russ–

      “Your paen of self-praise misses – or ignores – one thing: Several people, I among them, began sounding the alarm about the voucher program well before the Governor even brought it to the House and Senate Educaiton Commitees for consideration. We pointed out that private and parochial schools have never been held accountable to anyone – even the parents who paid full tuitions to send their children to them – and that the bills themselves offered no standards for schools chosen to receive tuition vouchers.”

      If you think I somehow missed or ignored the people who began sounding the alarm before these bills were brought before the legislature, go back and read the archives of this blog and then get back to me.

      How trifling, Russ: Accusing someone of writing a “paen of self-praise” and then, in the very same sentence, praising yourself. Unlike you, I’m not a politician. I haven’t been writing about these issues because I seek praise or commendation or votes; I’ve been covering this particular story fairly regularly for nearly nine months.

      And the truth is: Yes, bloggers and citizen journalists in Louisiana, we HAVE broken much of this story, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve done.

      ONE more thing, Russ. You may have said, in March, that you thought local school board members, such as yourself, should have the opportunity to more thoroughly review Jindal’s education reform plans, which (in my opinion) hardly qualifies as “sounding the alarm bell,” considering your remarks came months after his plan was initially unveiled. And given the fact that you publicly espouse the teaching of creationism in the public school science classroom and wrote an editorial in the Baton Rouge Advocate essentially endorsing the Louisiana Science Education Act, I find your self-congratulatory attempt at revising history more than a little amusing. Your equivocation and fundamental misunderstanding of science are part of the problem.

      Letter: Creation, evolution: Let them decide
      Published: May 6, 2011 – Page: 8B
      No one knows who lit the fuse for the “Big Bang.” By the same token, there were no known eyewitnesses to the Creation. But people on both sides still insist they alone are right and demand that the other guys just go away. Is that any way to run an education system?

      Darwinism has become as much a religion as Christianity. Each has its own dogma and its high priests, and each has the right to its own belief. Maybe neither of them is right. Maybe both of them are.

      But neither group has the right to exclusive access to young minds, especially at the high school level. Education in the 21st century should be about inviting young minds to explore contradictory ideas and weigh those ideas for themselves. Let young soon-to-be-adults hear about both arguments in an academic setting and discuss them openly.

      At the very least, both sides should acknowledge something these students already know: There is more than one description of the origin of the cosmos. Regardless of the purity of its intent, force-feeding a single point of view on any issue often leads to bigotry, intolerance or lifelong cynicism and indifference.

      RUSSELL WISE
      School Board member, St. John Parish
      LaPlace

  4. Hilarious that you think the public system of teacher qualification does a better job of maintaining high teacher standards than the free market will when parents can actively leave schools that teach poorly. And I wonder, have you written as vociferously about the public school systems anti-religious bullying as you have about the desires of private religious schools to expel students with public dollars? I hope so (first time reader).

    Parents like me have sacrificed a lot to home school our children for two reasons: we are poor and cannot afford private schools. And, we wouldn’t dream of subjecting our children to the puritanical liberal social engineering of the public school system.

    I don’t doubt that the New Living Word Whatever school is a joke. But so is the public school system. At least in a free market voucher system New Living Word will fail. I’m still forking over hard earned money in taxes for the joke of a public school we have here in SC.

    While both systems have their flaws I, a non-fundamentalist, educationally concerned parent and university professor, applaud the attempt to allow parents to avoid failing schools or send their kids to failing schools. Under the current public school system we are denied both choices.

    I keep reading your paragraphs and asking whether you’ve ever applied the same criticisms to public schools? Again, as a new reader I don’t know. I sure hope so though. As if government and atheist or non-religious politicians don’t have agendas. What lenses are you looking through? Do you seriously think this a problem specifically for the religious?

    1. Daniel,

      I’ve got some bad news for you: When the government provides millions and millions of dollars every single year to subsidize and prop up private schools, those schools aren’t free market actors. In any other industry, conservatives and most libertarians would be quick to label the scheme for what it truly is: Nasty, evil socialism, an affront to our nation’s belief in capitalism (I’m being purposely hyperbolic). But when it comes to education, for some reason, it’s easier to use the word “choice” in order to pretend like this scheme is about liberty and the word “privatization” in order to pretend that we’re really not talking about a massive giveaway of taxpayer dollars.

      THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FREE-MARKET VOUCHER PROGRAM.

      Look, I’m sorry you’re forced to pay taxes that help support South Carolina’s notoriously puritanical liberal (sort of an oxymoron, but whatever) public education system (You also pay for South Carolina’s puritanical liberal police and fire, roads and bridges, water and sewage, parks and recreation facilities). It obviously bugs you that even though you’re choosing to home-school your own children, you’re still being forced to help pay for the schools that educate everyone else’s kids. I mean, why should you have to pay to help insure that your neighbors’s kids receive a FREE education, right?

      In all seriousness, I don’t know what you’re referring to when you suggest that anti-religious bullying is commonplace or that I should be focusing, equally, on the atheist “agenda.” That, to me, is a red herring. Our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, and the separation of church and state is enshrined in the First Amendment. Diverting taxpayer dollars to prop up religious organizations– whether they’re churches or schools– is a violation of the Establishment Clause and is therefore unconstitutional. One day, when the United States Supreme Court is ruled by an honest majority, they won’t skirt around this issue through narrow holdings about whether the plaintiff has standing or has suffered actual harm. But either way, these programs are manifestly unconstitutional. It’s not a question of fact; it’s a question of political will.

  5. Thanks for covering these issues. I was beginning to feel like a lone voice in a hurricane. LDOE is a corrupt instrument of a corrupt governor led by a corrupt figurehead. I can speak of this with firsthand knowledge having worked there until I couldn’t stand the total insanity of the place. Vouchers and charters could have been introduced to the education mix responsibly and teacher tenure reform could have likewise been tweaked in a deliberative manner to improve our overall education system. This was not done, because that is not their goal. Their goal is keeping Louisiana ignorant and uneducated and the pockets of their donors lined with tax payer dollars for election kickbacks.

  6. I must remind you of three things: 1. The state legislature, elected by the people, passed the enabling legislation for vouchers. 2. The academic performance on standardized tests is always better for students from private schools, and 3. Private schools can fire teachers who don’t do their job.

    1. Zingz – I must inform you of some things.

      Academic performance is not always better. You may be the only person on earth making that claim. It is a ridiculous claim and makes you look like an idiot to claim such an easily refutable and absurd statement. If Jindal thought this was true why did he fight so hard to exempt non-publics from testing on standardized tests? And why have the students previously tested in the New Orleans scholarship program done so poorly, that most of them are doing worse on average than the terrible schools they left?

      Public schools can fire, or not rehire, teachers that do their jobs too – even before the “reform.” Tenure just ensures due process – not being fired without cause. Now the state will be firiing plenty of teachers that do their jobs well, and will be discouraging many new teachers from entering the field. Non-publics can hire uncertified teachers, and teachers without even a diploma – let alone a degee. Congratulations on winning that for the students of Louisiana.

      That’s a legislature you voted for. The legislature ceded its powers to the governor, for all intents and pruposes, they are just a law writing body for Jindal or rather, a law passing body for ALEC. Most people who voted for these guys are as ignorant as you.

      1. Crazycrawfish, there is no need for your verbal assault on me. One can express their opinion in a nice way, just as I did. By the way, I have a right to my opinion. Did your parents not teach you manners? Certainly you don’t show it if they did.

        1. No need, but i felt it was warranted based on your arrogance to present your “things” as fact. It’s arrogance of people like you that will destroy the education system for my children so i feel i have a dog in this hunt. Do you? Did your non-public school teach you how to make a credible argument? It shows.

          1. Arrogance is your perception… and not my forte. Dog in the hunt? Well I have three children, 13 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. All who are old enough have degrees. One is a teacher. I will not answer you again. I don’t tolerate impolite people well.

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