A User’s Guide to Bobby Jindal’s Voucher Reform (Cross-posted from CenLamar)
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.
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.
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.
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 Post, Esquire Magazine, The 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.