Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ed Reform Agenda Dictated by Privatization Interests

New revelations have surfaced this week about carefully orchestrated plans by privatization interests to drive "education reform" in Louisiana and most other states. The planning and organizing group for this reform legislation is called ALEC which is an acronym for American Legislative Exchange Council. The group provides an opportunity for business interests to offer template legislation to supportive governors and legislators. (Click on this link to view the ALEC Exposed website which contains descriptions of Template legislation designed to protect business interests and privatize various government functions.) National Chairman for the ALEC group is Louisiana State Senator, Noble Ellington.

ALEC is almost totally financed by big business interests. (The misleading name is intentional!) The ALEC education task force which writes the template education legislation includes a representative from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers represented in Louisiana by Caroline Roemer Shirley, the sister of Chas Roemer, current member of BESE. The education task force includes also a representative from Connections Academy, a "for profit" which sponsors a virtual charter school in Louisiana.  This school is allowed to take students and their funding from any public school in the state. The annual ALEC national conference is an invitation-only meeting in New Orleans on August 3-4. Governor Jindal will be a keynote speaker leading up to a session on education reform focusing on "school choice". Breaking News! Louisiana Taxpayers are funding trips for our legislators to this special interest conference according to an article today in the Baton Rouge Advocate! (click on this underlined link for the story) Also click on this link to see the editorial by the Lafayette Advertizer.

Why are these influential business people so interested in public education? Are they involved because they want to support and improve public education and enhance opportunities for students? I believe many of these big business leaders genuinely believe that their support for privatization is contributing to the improvement of education. Their theory is that free enterprise and competition will apply business principles to improving education. If parents can choose the best schools for their children, the marketplace will allow only the best schools (public or private) to survive. Lazy and incompetent public educators will be replaced by effective teachers and administrators who will be rewarded for excellence by merit pay.
Unfortunately, it does not work that way! Many other sponsors of ALEC see privatization as a way to make an easy buck using public tax money!

The free enterprise system often works well in a system where competition and the profit motive produce better products and efficiencies in production.  Unregulated free enterprise can also wreak havoc as we have seen in the banking collapse that recently caused the great recession. As it has been applied in Louisiana education, free enterprise and competition results in an extreme focus on test preparation, student selection to enroll the most motivated and cost efficient students in some charters, excessive salaries for administrators and neglect of special education students. Allegations about the Abramson Charter operation exposed in news reports last week include teachers who takeover science fair projects for students, lack of special education staffing, LEAP cheating, cover up of child abuse, bribery attempts and other unethical behavior.

The firing of Education Department staff who produced a critical report of the Abramson Charter is nothing new.  An independent audit of Baton Rouge area charters reported numerous weaknesses and violations of accountability procedures. The Department chose to blame the messenger and fired the independent audit firm, and decided to conduct future audits with in-house staff. Since then one of the schools audited has continued to experience serious disruptions and the rape of a student on campus. How has the Department responded? The charter organization, Advance Baton Rouge was awarded a 13.3 million dollar federal grant to implement the TAP (Teacher Advancement Program). This amount was twice the per-student amount allocated to a few other public school systems in Louisiana.

The Louisiana School Boards Association web site, this week, includes an article by consultant Don Whittinghill which outlines how to Follow the Dollars for school privatization interests.

This report shows that the public was led to believe that privatization would spend a larger percentage of education dollars on students through a site-based management system, which would cut central office waste. The fact is, central office costs for the Recovery District which serves half as many students as the East Baton Rouge school system spends 13 million dollars on their central office compared to 10 million dollars for the EBR central office.

 In another example, the Edison Charter Management organization, a "for profit" company, operating Capitol High school in Baton Rouge, saw its student enrollment fall to a fraction of the original enrollment while student achievement continued to be awful. The company was happy to give the school back to the Recovery District. Meanwhile, EBR-operated schools in the area have demonstrated much greater academic success than Capitol High School, yet the Recovery District refused to allow management to go back to the public school system. So much for competition rewarding the more successful management!

Takeover of schools in the New Orleans system by mostly Charter operators was supposed to do away with dropout factories. Yet it took a public records request to reveal that the cohort graduation rate for the Recovery District high schools was the second lowest in the state.  The new grading system adopted by BESE will award 32 Fs to Recovery District schools. Most of the others will get D or D-. The latest rules by BESE make it almost impossible for failing charters in New Orleans to go back to the public school system which has one of the best performances in the state.

So when ALEC meets in New Orleans next week, the participants from across the country will probably be told that the Louisiana Recovery District with its major privatization effort should serve as a model for the rest of the nation. Organizers are not about to let the facts interfere with their agenda.