Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has wasted no time this legislative session in pushing wide-reaching education reforms designed to expand the charter school footprint, while opening the door to vouchers and tying teacher tenure to student test results. In the early hours of the morning on March 23rd, after a marathon session, the Louisiana State House passed two bills that form the core of a wide-reaching education reform agenda designed to expand the charter school footprint, while opening the door to vouchers and tying teacher tenure to student test results. Governor Bobby Jindal wasted no time in pushing these reforms through in the first weeks of the legislative session, and the urgency with which he has advanced this agenda has infuriated teachers and left even some charter-school advocates alarmed. “The governor’s expression of urgency for these bills is specious at best. [They] did not have to be passed under cover of darkness,” says Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) president Steve Monaghan. Even Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who has been an avid charter school advocate, criticized the Governor’s haste: “I am by no means naïve, and know full well the Administration’s political advantage of pushing legislation through with as little debate as possible.” With these bills, Louisiana is set to join Florida, Ohio and Minnesota amongst the states that have enacted the most far-reaching of these school reforms. This marks the latest wave in a concerted nation-wide effort by right-wing advocacy organizations and their corporate supporters to ravage the public sector.
The last tidal wave of reform occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when authorities circumvented the process of debate by deliberating while large swaths of the population were still displaced. The changes enacted during that “Emergency Session” of the state legislature allowed for the vast majority of New Orleans’ public schools to be brought under the state-administered Recovery School District (RSD), which, in turn, facilitated the process of turning over management to private charters. In the meantime, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) was effectively eviscerated, as the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) fired the entirety of its teaching staff after losing control of the bulk of its schools. Over the next few years, New Orleans became the nation’s first majority charter city: a bona fide model for school “reformers” keen on extending the “school choice” doctrine to the rest of the country.
The current legislative initiative will effectively spread the New Orleans model to the rest of the state, while loosening administrative checks on charter governance and opening up a new arena of unaccountable education providers via the voucher program. This is part of a nation-wide process of special interests and right wing zealots promulgating legislation designed to attack one of the few remaining public pillars of this society. Their goal now is turning Louisiana into its pet project. Far from becoming a model for thoughtful school reform, the state is set to become an example of the havoc wreaked when elite interests are allowed to run rampant over the democratic process.
In attempting to identify the instigators of this agenda, the story begins and ends with the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conduit between corporate boardrooms and elected officials willing to enact their agenda of austerity and privatization. The non-profit evades lobby disclosure requirements by presenting itself as an advocate of rather innocuous ends: “the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty,” according to their website. In reality, their initiatives stick to a neo-liberal orthodoxy reminiscent of the structural adjustment programs long imposed on the global south by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. As the economic elite has seen its supply of exploitable poor countries dry up, they have refocused their attention on the United States, using mechanisms like ALEC as to help enact many of the same policies on states with governors and legislators firmly in their pocket. These policies include prison privatization, stripping collective bargaining rights, reducing or eliminating environmental protections, and enacting regressive tax laws.
Louisiana has been a principal focal point of ALEC’s education agenda in recent years, as best evinced in the decision to hold their annual meeting in the soupy August heat of New Orleans last year. Governor Jindal led a plenary session at the conference, and was joined in attendance by no less than 24 members of the state House, according to source material gathered by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Among them was Noble Ellington, a recently retired Republican representative who presided as National Chairman of ALEC at the time. In an interview with Democracy Now that week, he stated that it did not matter that corporations amounted to such a dominant presence at the ALEC meeting, because elected officials were in attendance as well: “We represent the public and we are the ones who decide. So the tax-paying public is represented there at the table, because I’m there”.
That model might work if the taxpayer were the politician’s sole benefactor. However, campaign disclosure records show that some 50 members of the state House together raised more than $500,000 in campaign funds from ALEC member corporations during the last cycle. This fact alone ought serve as sufficient evidence of the foolhardiness of Ellington’s characterization of lawmakers as independent arbiters. However, yet more proof is immediately available on the home page for the Louisiana Legislature. There, one finds a link to the ALEC website: an outrageous illustration of how embedded corporate governance has become. That someone thought it remotely appropriate to put the link in place and no one else found it potentially offensive speaks to a widespread acceptance of the primacy of business interests in the public sector. The political elite sees no inherent problem with a bargaining table composed of corporations, the politicians they support with vast campaign largesse, and an empty chair where the public ought be.
After all, removing the public from the public is precisely the intent of these reforms. The initial wave followed a devastating crisis, a la Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” and ensuing reforms have effectively institutionalized the crisis in Louisiana. This has been achieved by keeping the system in a perpetual state of flux. Schools are constantly opening, closing or changing hands, teacher retention rates are exceedingly low, and a number of different government authorities vie for oversight within the same geographic area. Just understanding the organizational flow of the New Orleans public school system is a tall task. There are 16 schools under the direct management of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD), and 49 charters that fall under the state’s purview at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). 26 of these charters belong to five separate networks that manage multiple schools, while the other 23 are part of independent non-network charters. Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) oversees nine non-network charters, and another two that are part of the same charter network as five schools that fall under the purview of the BESE. Meanwhile, the OPSB retains direct management of six schools: down from over 100 before Katrina hit.
Furthermore, the policy of tying teacher tenure to standardized test performance has added to this instability by greatly reducing teacher retention. A quick glance at empirical data on the number of first year teachers is quite revealing on this point. A recently published report by the Louisiana Board of Education (LBOE) provides this demographic information for the 2009-2010 school year. In the charter heavy RSD (37 of 70 total are charters), 619 of 2,237 teachers were in their first year. That comes out to roughly 27.7%, compared to a statewide rate of 10.7%. If the teacher tenure reforms accomplish anything, it is keeping the revolving door of personnel moving.
The continuous flow of new teachers is largely provided by non-profits like Teach for America and Teach Nola, each of which have supplied hundreds of rookie instructors since Katrina. These donor-subsidized salaries result in considerably lower cost to the state and charter operators, which many critics would surmise to be the primary intent of these reforms: chopping public sector salaries under the guise of improving the quality of education.
Teachers’ unions view the changes as a direct threat to the integrity of their vocation. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers’ (LFT) Director of Public Relations, Les Landon, spoke with me on this theme in particular: “We’re very concerned about what we see as the de-professionalization of teaching.” He raised the issue of removing the requirement that teachers be certified as one example of the move in this direction. However, the reliance on test results received the bulk of his criticism. He said: “Almost every decision on a teacher’s professional life is going to be based on student test scores. We think that’s a pretty terrible idea . . . What they are basically doing is trying to say that anybody can teach as long as you can get children to fill out the right bubbles on the test form.”
In that vein, New Orleans charters have fared better than their counterparts elsewhere in demonstrating measurable improvement in test scores. A study last year by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) showed that half of New Orleans’ charter schools were improving at a rate “significantly faster” than equivalent traditional schools. This broke with the national trend that showed charter schools performing slightly worse than their traditional counterparts. However, critics in New Orleans point to an inherent structural advantage on the part of charters. For example, some charters are selective enrollment, and most special-needs kids continue to enroll in traditional public schools. Furthermore, an achievement gap exists among charter schools, suggesting a replication of the same divisions long seen in traditional public schools.
What’s more, Landon argues that the current reforms will reverse any gains made in New Orleans’ charter system by eradicating the prevailing system of accountability. He explained that the CREDO study found that “the New Orleans charter schools were doing well because there was strict accountability on the issuance of charters . . . The Governor’s agenda this year virtually erases (this).” He notes that schools will no longer be required to provide fiscal reports with the LBOE, and instead will direct these reports to “charter authorizers.” These could be non-profit or corporate entities that create at least five charter schools, and then take over the oversight role currently assigned to the district. He is very candid on the implication of this reform: “What this bill does is open the floodgates to privatized education through the charter system.”
In fact, charter operators throughout the country have already proven adept at cashing in on their education endeavors. An investigative report in the Miami Herald last October unveiled a range of charter school profiteers operating under the auspices of one of the most lenient charter laws in the country (former Gov. Jeb Bush is one of the most high-profile “School Choice” advocates). The authors detail one school, “The Academy of Arts and Minds,” that has been used as a lucrative source of business for founder Manuel Alonso-Poch. He charged $900,000 a year in rent, $150,000 for providing lunch, and $90,000 for handling the financial books during the last fiscal year. According to the report, charter schools have developed a reputation for this sort of activity, to the point of even attracting the watchful eye of the IRS.
The prospect for financial gain is likely the primary motivator of some of the most vocal supporters of these reforms. A scan through the board of directors of any of a number of charter operators reveals a veritable “Who’s Who” of American Aristocracy. For example, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which operates over 100 public charter schools throughout the country, boasts a significant list of billionaires. John Fisher, son of Gap clothing founders Doris and Don, sits atop as chairman. He is joined by his mother, as well as Carrie Walton Penner of the Walmart clan, Mark Nunnelly, managing director of Bain Capital, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and Philippe Dauman, CEO of Viacom. Bill Gates has also been an active contributor to various charter reform efforts.
The education reform agenda has widespread corporate and political support, with members of both parties amongst its biggest advocates. At the highest level, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan previously oversaw an aggressive expansion of charter schools in Chicago while superintendent of that system from 2001-2009. Furthermore, he specifically lent Jindal his support for the recent appointment of state school czar John White, a charter advocate who previously managed the New Orleans system. Meanwhile, similar reforms are currently being debated from coast to coast: New Jersey, Hawaii and Washington state have seen similar legislative packages introduced during the current session. At the same time, the Florida Senate narrowly defeated a “Parent Trigger” bill last month, which would have granted parents the power to turn their children’s schools over to charters if it were failing and a majority of parents approved.
While that defeat is certainly encouraging, it is one of the few times these reforms have been beaten back, given their heavy bipartisan support. Meanwhile, the left tends to be focused elsewhere, such as bankster malfeasance, ending the imperial wars, resisting the encroaching police state, and so on. It is hard to pick one issue of “most importance,” but education should probably attract more attention. This is an issue that cuts to the soul of the country, as school plays a crucial role in cognitively programming young people. A whole generation of children are set to be molded in a savage educational environment of resentful and frightened teachers, corporate executives playing the role of school administrators, and billionaires desperately trying to cash in on a vital public service. This seems likely to create an adult population that knows only the retrograde “every man for himself” ideology. It will also wipe out a large swath of the middle class, much of it black and/or female, that populate the ranks of the unionized inner-city teaching force. It will replace them with armies of young, naive “do-gooders” from Teach for America, set on educating the “savages” of the “urban ghettos.” The new education model is replete with economically backward ideology, racism, and union-busting.
New Orleans has had seven years to see how much this system stinks. Unfortunately, the rest of the country looks set to get their turn in the near future. ALEC and other reformers will continue to push this agenda in every state of the nation, and this will not stop until they have thoroughly emasculated the public, or vice versa.