Anti-Ed Reform History – from my perspective (Part I)

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jason France. I am a product of the Louisiana public school system, an LSU graduate, a father of public school children in Louisiana, an erstwhile Louisiana Department of Education employee, and a blogger. While I am sometimes jokingly characterize myself as an intrepid anti-education-reform revolutionary, I am anything but! Until very recently I’ve kept my identity secret; to keep myself, my family and my friends from being targeted by the forces that seek to profit from and annihilate our public education system.

But I get ahead of myself, first let me start at what I consider the beginning.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina reminded us all just how fragile life can be. In just days New Orleans, one of America’s oldest and most revered cities, was drowned in a sea of death and hopelessness. Many of us nearby, but outside the worst of the destruction, watched helplessly as the storm blew ashore, watched as color drained from the faces of evacuees who took refuge with us. After losing TV signals we used our hand cranked radios to listen to reports trickling in. There was nothing we could do for our friends. Many good folks had to relocate, many never to return even to this day. Amidst this destruction the Recovery School District (RSD) was born.

Politicians took to the airwaves pledging support and renewal; a second chance; a new beginning. New Orleans would come back better and stronger, and we would start with the children.

We were desperate for hope. To save our sacred city we were told Louisiana would have to fire our teachers, and we violated their union contracts and we fired our teachers. We were told we would have to turn our schools over to private charter operators . . . and we did. We were told there was no time to properly review or vet these operators, that time was of the essence, and we believed them. We were told we needed to hire out-of-state “talent” to run our schools and supervise the rebuilding, and we did this also.

Our Governor Blanco was largely seen as defeated by Katrina ,and Kat’s just as nasty sister Rita (or “Katrita” as I referred to them), and she did not seek a second term for Governor. This was a political calculus many in the state were not prepared for, and Bobby Jindal swooped in to take advantage of the momentary weakness, and take advantage did he ever! Jindal immediately started privatizing and tormenting state employees with gleeful abandon, while simultaneously hiring unqualified cronies to run all aspects of state government . . . into the ground.

Paul Pastorek, a local lawyer and prominent republican who once worked for NASA, was approved to run the Louisiana Department of Education. Paul Vallas was recruited from Philadelphia and he brought in his cadre of unaccountable Reformers – and so the Katastrophe that started with Katrina became so much worse.

Accountability laws that had been on the books for year were finally coming to fruition and schools that were ranked poorly by our accountability system, primarily due to higher concentrations of poverty, became ripe for takeover. The success and ease with privatizing New Orleans showed just how easy such a tactic could become and Louisiana’s poorest schools in Baton Rouge and Caddo and school districts such as Pointe Coupee and St Helena became targets. Statewide schools serving poor children quietly started closing their doors to prevent the state and RSD from hijacking them and the concept of Shadow Schools was conceived and implemented. (Shadow Schools are schools that go unreported to the state or schools that route all of their students to other schools in a district to raise their scores above takeover range.)

After a few years RSD was touted as a solution for the nation to follow, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited New Orleans and exclaimed that Katrina was the best thing to ever happen to education in New Orleans. What I hope Arne didn’t know at the time was that all was not what it appeared to be. Special education students were being underserved, excluded or counseled out. The data quality and oversight of charter schools was non-existent. The Recovery School District was the worst offender of them all. Early on RSD Schools reported 100% attendance for all students, zero dropouts, no discipline data, and this was touted as success. Special Education students went unserved and undocumented, lawsuits were brought and quietly settled out of court by our lawyers, and RSD remained a model for out-of-state reformers to swear by, and to pledge to replicate in other states.

As Bobby Jindal became more confident in his power he continued his assault on civil servants and educators and proposed a seedling voucher program in New Orleans. This program became the basis for a statewide voucher program he pushed a few years later, which was to be funded from money constitutionally dedicated to public school children. Numerous lawsuits later, and a furious PR campaign funded by the Jindal camp notwithstanding, Louisiana’s Conservative Supreme Court handed down a 6-1 decision and rebuke to Jindal not try and use PR and propaganda to rewrite Louisiana’s Constitution, or the dictionary, to suit his political ends.

Starting in 2010, several local bloggers named Mike Deshotels, a retired Louisiana educator and former director of the Louisiana Association of Educators and Tom Aswell, a former investigative journalist, author, and civil servant, entered the picture with the mission to of uncovering corruption and the bogus promises of Bobby Jindal’s reign of ignorance and graft. While I was working at the Louisiana Department of Education I ran across their work and was gratified and inspired by what I read. In 2011 another blogger and tireless activist, teacher and advocate for public education entered the blogosphere named Lee Barios. These guys, and countless others I don’t have the space to mention or as extensive a background working with directly (although I will be happy to amend this history if they share their stories), did much of the heavy lifting fighting; exposing injustice after falsehood, after deceit but there was just so much. . . it was impossible to keep tabs on it all, and that was by design.

Early on everyone in the anti-reform/anti-corruption movement worked in their own information silos while the reformers worked collaboratively and coordinated their movements. At first shadowy organizations like ALEC (The American Legislative Council) TFA (Teach for America) the Eli Broad Foundation, Student’s First, Pierson, and anything affiliated with Bill Gates worked quietly behind the scenes to disenfranchise the public. Later these shadow groups overtly funded our BESE (state board of education) candidates and Governor Bobby Jindal and were eventually appointed to run our educational institutions from the inside. I and everyone I’ve spoken to, such as Dr. Mercedes Schneider, Dr. Charles Hatfield, Dr Barbara Ferguson, Noel Hammatt, Herb Bassett, Karran Harper Royal, tried to get our local mainstream media to cover many of these issues as something other than verbatim press releases from the Governor’s office or LDOE, but without much success, at least early on. The few times I managed to garner any attention from the media John White and Jindal exercised their influence over the media to censor the stories, and get those working with me fired.

At this point things looked bleak. This was an assault on very fabric of our democracy and most people were completely oblivious. John White was selected by a megalomaniacal governor and a puppet BESE to run the State Department of Education. Before John White ever set foot in the Claiborne building John White set the wheels in motion to wall our DOE off from the outside world. I worked in the data collection and reporting department and this is what I saw immediately:

  • Previously published data was removed from the department’s website and instructions were sent that anyone in the department talking to anyone, even school districts, about anything data related would be subject to disciplinary action and termination. All such requests were to be referred to communications, where they usually went to die.
  • Instructions were delivered in person (so as to avoid an e-mail record of the exchange) that only “friendly” organizations and researchers were to be given data henceforth and FERPA rights would be asserted to prevent data going to anyone else.
  • A memorandum from John White was circulated instructed us that any e-mails sent to 10 or more external contacts were immediately forbidden. Anyone found violating this policy would be subject to disciplinary action or termination.
  • DOE Staff were forbidden to send out or forward any guidance or instructions to the school districts directly. All such correspondence must be handled through a communication intermediary, via a weekly newsletter, that could only be sent to a single designated recipient in a school district. The district recipient would be responsible for ensuring each portion of the letter got to the necessary party, and except in extreme circumstances we were not to contact our LEA counterparts directly – but this was an unworkable solution by design.

Within months of John White’s appearance we were instructed:

  • to stop verifying data with charter schools
  • virtual schools did not need to verify attendance and should be discouraged from attempting to for any reason
  • not to investigate dropout numbers that made no sense
  • to implement a VAM system with highly suspect data (and to allow the data to become even more suspect)
  • to alter the way MFP was funded to take money from traditional public school districts to fund charters and state schools – which had previously been funded by budget line items

This told me two things. My time at the department was limited unless I was going to be willing to sell out my state and my people, and something needed to be done. Many of my colleagues came from teaching backgrounds and had developed very specialized skills and program knowledge over the years that was not easily transferable outside of state government. Many others were very close to retirement, and willing and hoping to just eke out a few more miserable years before escaping. I was in a unique position of having readily transferable IT skills and a background in the private sector, as well as insufficient years to worry about retirement concerns. Anyone who works in civil service in Louisiana can be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking out against the government or politicians and this happens on a regular basis in Louisiana. I’m not sure if this has ever been tested in the US Supreme Court, but I was not about to be the first. Jindal has also taken it upon himself to punish spouses of state workers that dare speak out, and spouses or his detractors who are civil servants. This would pose a problem for me since my wife was also employed by the state at the time.

A few weeks after leaving the department I started an anonymous blog to test the waters about revealing what I knew. Unsurprisingly I was largely ignored. In retrospect my attempts at disguising my identity through anonymous self-destructing e-mail accounts registered through anonymous proxy servers (reporting my IP address as originating from Czechoslovakia and Ghana) were overkill comical attempts – to say the least.

After about 6 months spent keeping a look out for shadowy agents of doom, I relaxed my guard a little bit and started to reveal to select people who I was. Several reporters contacted me and picked my brains about various stories and topics and I eventually started trying to contact national figures like Diane Ravitch, although without much early success. Imagine that, a serious national figure not immediately charmed and persuaded by someone calling himself the Crazy Crawfish? J (Fortunately , my antics and occasionally insightful expose’ brought her around.)

While most everyone but some annoyed family and former coworkers ignored me, (sorry guys) I did manage to attract the attention of local anti-reform figures. After months of back and forth conversations I found some kindred spirits and a decent level of trust and camaraderie developed. I discovered I had something many of my colleagues lacked:

  • inside information about how the department worked
  • insight on who the key players were
  • an understanding of what types of data and systems we supported
  • an extensive network of contacts throughout the state I’d made in the 8 or so years I worked directly with school districts
  • a decent reputation among my colleagues at the Louisiana Department of Education who cared about our state and our children.

. . . to be continued. . . really. . . I might even invent a happy ending for this one. . .

(Sorry for the delay in posting guys. I’ve had some health issues really sapping my strength and morale. Hopefully I’ll be getting the permanent treatment I need in the next few weeks. In the meantime here is “part I” of the history of Louisiana and School Reform invasion from my perspective. . . it was getting pretty long so I figured I’d break it up a bit. Many thanks to my anti-ed reform hommies for supplying some background info which I will use to flesh out this history or additional parts.)