For over three months, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White has refused to release records detailing the criteria and the process by which he and his department used to determine the eligibility of schools seeking to participate in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, more commonly known as Louisiana’s voucher program. Put more simply and plainly, for over three months, John White has concealed any and all records related to how he decided which private schools were eligible for a massive infusion of taxpayer funding. He’s refused to give parents information on how these schools were ranked, how the Department of Education measured their qualifications, and whether there were any outstanding complaints or issues with these schools.
Superintendent White claims that he does not have to release these records, asserting a rarely-used “deliberative process” exemption. But I have my own theory: I don’t think there were any real deliberations. There may actually be records of Superintendent White’s decision-making process, but, obviously, if he was proud of the integrity of these decisions, he’d be more than happy to share them with the people of Louisiana, including all of those parents that he claims to support. More than likely– and I realize I am engaging in some speculation here, the records of Superintendent White’s decision-making process are strings of encouraging e-mails between him, his staff, and the operators of private schools they hoped to entice. More than likely, Superintendent White did not use any type of test with which to determine a school’s merits or qualifications. More than likely, he never looked into what any of these schools were actually teaching, or even whether or not they were a real school in a real building.
Yet, as John White tours Louisiana attempting to sell this voucher program, he tells anyone who will listen that his main priority is providing parents with the information they need to make an informed decision on where to send their child to school. That’s how both Governor Jindal and Superintendent White have attempted to spin and sell this program: Parental choice. Yet they won’t even provide parents with basic information on how and why they chose these schools.
“If John White wants to actually communicate with parents, he should be open and honest,” writes education activist Zack Kopplin. “He should inform the public about the curriculums used by the schools in his voucher program.” And he’s spot on. Superintendent White, however, has no intention or desire to be open or honest about the schools he approved for taxpayer subsidization.
Earlier this week, in what is the surest sign yet that Superintendent White’s messaging on school vouchers has been derailed, he announced he would be spending $12,000 a month on a Florida-based public relations consultant specifically tasked with managing the Department’s communication on school vouchers. Notably, Superintendent White already employs a full-time press secretary, who earns $70,000 a year.
“The number one thing our system needs right now is the work of great teachers and parents,” Superintendent White told WAFB News. “And teachers and parents need to be communicated with to get the information that they need.” Except, of course, any of the relevant information.
Superintendent White then went onto say, “Our people are crying out for more communication,” which, to me, sounds more like, “We’re getting pummeled here, and we needed to bring in some professional help.”
Last weekend, during Rising Tide’s panel on education, Dr. Lance Hill, the Executive Director of Tulane’s Southern Institute for Education and Research, suggested that the outcry over Jindal’s school voucher program was misdirected. Around 5,000 students are currently enrolled in the program, he pointed out. To him, the real threat to the promise of public education is the proliferation of charter schools. He’d made some good points throughout the panel, but it struck me as uncharacteristically naive for a Louisiana education policy expert to dismiss the voucher program as if it were some unimportant “diversion.” I recognize there has been an enormous amount of scholarship and research on the merits of charter schools, but with all due respect to people like Dr. Hill: If you still believe that charter schools are the single greatest threat to the public education system, then you clearly don’t understand the vision and implications of the voucher program.
There is a reason Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education has spent the last nine months defending and promoting this program.
There’s a reason Superintendent White is spending $12,000 a month for a consultant whose primary responsibility is to defend a program that has only been made available to 5,000 students but has qualified nearly 380,000 students (more than half of all public school students in Louisiana). Make no mistake: This is their long-term plan, and they’re willing to pay big bucks to sell it.