Friday, July 22, 2011

Charter School Scandal Expands to State Department

Two more educators have fallen victim to the botched efforts by the LA Dept. of Education to deal with irregularities at a New Orleans charter school. The article linked here by reporter Andrew Vancour of the Times Picayune identifies Folwell Dunbar and Jacob Landry as the two Education Department staff members fired this week connected with the problems at Abramson Science and Technology Charter School.

But it looks like once again the wrong educators have been fired. The questionable firings started at the school when two young teachers were apparently fired for making legitimate complaints to the State Dept. about possible violations of education and child protection laws by charter school operators. Now the firings have extended to at least one of the Dept. staffers who tried to properly report and correct the problems at the school. According to the Picayune article, Dunbar after an attempt was made to bribe him last year, insisted on corrective actions by the Dept. including suspension of the school's charter. Now that the charter has been suspended and the charter operators removed, it's mystifying to observers why Mr Dunbar and his boss Landry, would be fired.

All this demonstrates why the practice of approving dozens of charter operators with minimal qualifications and with little state oversight has been a very bad policy. These rampant charter school adoptions proliferated under the administration of State Superintendent Pastorek who apparently never met a school privatization scheme he didn't like.

In a statement, Dunbar said, "I was terribly shocked and disappointed" when the department of education let him go, adding, "I am very proud of the department's post-Katrina reform efforts, and am honored to have been given an opportunity to contribute."

Last summer when Dunbar's recommendations were ignored and apparently hidden from BESE, he recommended the following: "Dunbar made six recommendations for improving oversight: more clearly defined roles for the state, the RSD and charter school boards; a "comprehensive" school quality review system; a more clearly spelled out procedure for handling complaints; whistle-blower protection policies; and more of an effort to live up to the idea of "complete transparency."

Maybe if BESE had seen his recommendations and adopted at least the whistle-blower protection, Dunbar would still have his job today. Possibly the two young teachers fired by the charter operator may have been allowed a hearing and had a chance to be reinstated by BESE which is supposed to have authority over all state approved charters. But because of a State Superintendent dominated-dictatorial culture at the State Department, BESE never got a chance to do its job.

In a statement announcing the firings, acting Superintendent Ollie Tyler said there was a need for the charter school oversight department to go "in a new direction".

That "new direction" should be as follows:
BESE should reclaim its constitutional authority over the State Department of Education, and the State Superintendent of Education should answer to BESE instead of the reverse. We also need to elect more members to BESE who are not just lackeys of privatization interests and our anti-public education governor!

Monday, July 18, 2011

BESE Takeover Planned This Fall!

I'm not exaggerating! There is now a major plan shaping up to take over Louisiana's chief education policy making board and convert it into an anti-public education institution. Don't take my word for it. Just take a look at what these groups themselves are saying about their plans for Louisiana and the teaching profession.

The Louisiana Federation for Children (click on the highlighted section to view their web site) which is a branch of the American Federation for Children is sponsoring a training session for pro-privatization candidates to BESE and the Legislature this Saturday, July 23. This workshop will train candidates who want to help the group promote "school choice" which is a code term meaning privatization of schools. According to their web information, the group supports both charter schools and the expansion of the voucher program. School vouchers are a major goal of privatization. Such programs allow parents to use tax money to send their children to private schools, most of which do not participate in accountability. It's ironic that the school reform movement with its emphasis on testing and accountability may result in allowing students to attend private schools at public expense where no testing takes place and standards are minimal.

Closely allied with the above group is a group designed to attract minority parents to support vouchers. This groups is called the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options. Click on the highlighted phrase to go to their web site. This group conducts community organizing to convince minority parents that the answer to their education concerns is the funding of vouchers for minority children.

New pro-business BESE candidates are being sought to push for repeal of teacher tenure and seniority benefits of teachers.
The following is a story from the Baton Rouge Business Report on May 24:

"Grigsby to target support of teacher tenure
Candidates for state offices who hope to gain the support of Cajun Industries’ chairman, deep-pocketed political activist Lane Grigsby, can expect to be asked their position on eliminating tenure for public school teachers. "During this next election cycle, every candidate that comes before every organization that I sit on is going to have to tell that organization how they feel about teachers’ tenure," and whether they would commit to eliminating tenure for new school teachers, Grigsby says. "Florida just did it," he says. "It can be done. Louisiana needs to be one of the leaders, not one of the followers." In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law ending tenure for new hires and requiring districts to come up with an evaluation system to determine which teachers get merit pay raises and which might face dismissal; the system would be at least halfway based on how much students improve on standardized tests. Proponents say the law will help attract and retain the best teachers, while opponents say it imposes an unfunded mandate on districts and requires compensation and evaluation systems that haven’t improved student learning when tried elsewhere. Teachers unions are expected to challenge the law in court, according to Florida media reports."

The above report came out as a response to a call by BESE member Chas Roemer for a repeal of tenure.

Here's what John Maginnis of the blog LA Politics Weekly said recently:
"BESE to Be Targeted by 3rd Party Campaign

A politically active contractor known for putting his money where his mouth is has promised to raise a big war chest to target BESE incumbents who have opposed education initiatives backed by the Jindal administration.
Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby says he will put up and raise $1.6 million to back challengers to three members: Dale Bayard of Sulphur, Walter Lee of Shreveport and Keith Guice of Monroe."

So that's the plan for takeover of BESE. Grigsby and other business interests will come up with major funding for BESE campaigns and the Louisiana Federation for Children will train hand picked candidates about how to run their campaigns and will also give them technical support.

Why do business interests and many media owners want so badly to attack job protections of teachers and turn over public schools to private operators? I sat down a few months ago with the editors of the Baton Rouge Advocate to try to convince them that school takeovers have not been successful and that the new letter grading system for schools was unfair and destructive. They listened politely, and they admitted that many charters and vouchers have not worked but they admitted that they no longer have confidence in the public schools. They basically said that they are willing to support anything but public schools!

That kind of attitude is unfortunate because our public schools are willing and able to educate those students that are willing and able to learn. The data nationwide shows that non-poverty students trained in our public schools score at the top of international rankings. Public schools have the expertize and can  do much to help close the learning gap for at-risk students if we place maximum resources including experienced teachers and more instruction time where it is most needed. Dismantling public education and de-professionalizing the teaching profession will only set back our entire educational system and our ability to prepare our children to compete in the world job market!

Last Friday there was another news story about the chaos we encourage when we open our school system up to indiscriminate privatization. Our State Department of Education under pressure from a devastating news report of numerous unethical and possibly illegal actions by the Abramson Science and Technology Charter school in  New Orleans took a belated action Friday to suspend the charter and close the school for the fall 2011 enrollment. The linked news story from the Times Picayune gives details of the alleged infractions and describes the fate of two teachers who blew the whistle on the charter school administration.  Its ironic that the firing of the two whistle blowing teachers makes the best case possible for due process protections such as tenure in preventing unfair dismissals or reprisals.

Other recent examples of the failure of privatization include the collapse of the Edison schools management of Capitol High school in Baton Rouge, the Filipino teacher abuses, many of which were connected with Baton Rouge area charters,  and the repeated academic failures of the Advance Baton Rouge takeover schools. ABR just replaced their Director and have experienced high turnover of principals and teachers in addition to very low student test scores. Enrolment in most of their schools is drastically down. Apparently choice is not working well in the Baton Rouge area.

The takeover of BESE in the Fall elections, however is far from being a done deal. BESE elections usually are not high profile elections. In such elections, public school employees and their friends and relatives can have a huge impact, if they are organized to support pro public education candidates. The Coalition For Louisiana Public Education has taken on the challenge of finding good candidates and of informing school employees about such candidates. This blog will support and help publicize the work of The Coalition for Louisiana Public Education. Please stay tuned for further information in the coming months.

I hope all professional educators will get involved in the BESE elections this fall to insure that our public education system continues to be truly public.