But before I get into some of the nitty-gritty details of where I am today as a small part of a grassroots rebellion, it’s important to note that none of this happened in a vacuum. I suppose I was a little like every little state worker bee for the first few years. I believed I was a simple civil servant, but that was ok. I had a job to do, just like everyone else, and we all wanted to work toward a common goal, and help our fellow citizens and our state. At the Louisiana Department of Education I enjoyed my job, and I despite some political jockeying in the upper echelons of management and the occasional slacker (every agency has one or two, but that’s not something confined to the public sector), I believed most people were bound by the same general common goal: To serve our state, to help our school districts, and to improve the lot of children in whatever role we served.
At first I didn’t really pay attention the difference between classified and unclassified personnel. To me, unclassified personnel were simply folks that had specialized skills, temps with specific projects, or agency heads that needed to be reportable directly to our elected officials so they couldn’t hide behind the Civil Service rules that theoretically protected classified folks. I was a classified worker. This mean I had to meet and document my qualifications for a given job level (or grade) that my salary and promotional opportunities would largely be handled by a strict schedule, but I wouldn’t be subject whimsical or politically driven termination. I wouldn’t get rich, there would be no bonuses or raises in good times, but I would be able to support a family, plan for a stable retirement, buy a house and invest in the community, and serve my stat and the people of my state, my friends, neighbors, teachers and their children. That seemed like a pretty good deal to me and I was content.
My primary role was collecting data used for funding school districts and reporting and evaluating school districts. As I stayed on I realized I was learning some pretty specialized and skills and developing a lot of institutional knowledge that allowed me to streamline processes in the department. I discovered that due to a process misunderstanding, school districts were missing out on as much as 20 million dollars in state and federal funds, annually – which I was able to correct because of my knowledge of all the relevant parties and their roles. Part of my job was data auditor, so I became pretty adept at reading and recognizing education data, and realizing the significance of small changes and trends which allowed me recognize when one of school districts was probably having a system issue before they did. I rewrote a 34 page dropout calculation down to about 3 pages, which in addition to saving loads of processing time actually fixed a problem that was accidentally marking additional students as dropouts. I successfully championed allowing students that have completed 12th grade, but failed to graduate due to lack of credits or passing the GEE, to remain in school to work on these requirements until meeting the necessary requirements. Not bad for just a little data collector and data reporting guy – I thought. After Katrina and Rita hit I built some extraction and importer tools to automate the process of retrieving school records from multiple databases that could be shared with the 48 other states our children ended up enrolling in. This enabled them to quickly restart the education part of their lives that was so significantly disrupted by mother nature by allowing other school districts to place our children in appropriate educational settings . (Most of the states we worked with were impressed with our organizational and response abilities in the face of a once in a century catastrophe but I could not have done it without a great team of dedicated civil servants and friends to back me up.) I also created terms that were used to describe students the very transient and migratory nature of our multiply displaced students (some students were evacuated as many as 4 or more times due to Katrina, Rita, and overcrowding) – nomadic. I first had to lobby for this internally once I learned all the expenses districts were incurring even for temporarily enrolling students before they were often mysteriously whisked away in the night. I also helped to successfully lobby the federal government to fund these types of students and their situations and developed a system to keep track of these students without requiring any coding changes for our vendors, state systems or school districts.
I thought I’d done good. But then Paul Pastorek, RSD and death by a 1000 charters came to town.
Early on I was a bit overwhelmed by my job and the situation, and probably like a lot of New Orleanians, grateful for anyone offering to help rebuild the city and not put off by the enormous task. I don’t think enough of us questioned the motivations of people coming in. Since Katrina I’ve been through and observed several other local disasters like Gustav, BP, and the earthquake in Haiti. Now I see that for all the good folks, there are at least as many bad apples, spoiling to get a crack at any recovery dollars and to take advantage of the unwary, the infirm, and the desperate. This is something I’ve learned that education “reformers” are very good at – taking advantage of the poor and downtrodden. As US secretary of Education Arne Duncan confirmed on a visit to New Orleans, Katrina was a godsend, to them.
Noel Hammatt has produced a very terrific article on poverty in Louisiana and the perfect correlation between poverty and SPS (School Performance Scores) produced by the Louisiana department of education to rank our public schools. I strongly encourage anyone who thinks our school and student performance is based on anything other than poverty to read his analysis. Be aware, there will always be anomalies, we all know someone from a wealthy family that was dumb as rocks, or the poor kid from the tragic background that made good, but those stories are overwhelmingly outweighed by the preponderance of evidence we have, evidence that reformers use every trick in the book to disguise, deny, hide, falsify or even destroy as has been the case in of LDOE under John White reformer rule and to a lesser extent his predecessor Paul Pastorek. These are some of the actions that convinced me that not only do reformers not believe their own platitude strewn “Louisiana Believes” garbage; they consciously and methodically seek to mislead the public with both forethought and malice.
For years data rolled in from RSD (The state run Recovery School District) that was absurdly incomplete. Paul Vallas was brought to RSD town in New Orleans after ruining the education system in my hometown of Philadelphia with his charter school obsessed budget busting and bankrupting shenanigans.
(In case you’re wondering, reformers have never been successful in any city they’ve invaded and sacked like barbaric education Visigoths and Vandals conquering Rome. They usually leave the cities and states they lead in much worse situations than they found them, in many cases with irreparable damage so they become cyclically victimized by successive waves of “reformers.” You can look at the who’s who of reform cities, like DC, Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, Chicago, St Louis, Atlanta, and you will see story after story of cheating, scandal, outrage, school closings, mass educator firings, fiscal mismanagement and blatant disregard for civil rights of minorities and disabled children. What you won’t see is real improvement that stands up to any scrutiny, and this is after decades of “reform” in many cases. None of the children few of the original teachers and principals are left in these “reform” havens, so why we not amazed and blown away by all the progress of these unfettered policies? Let me reiterate this point, education reform is decades old, but constantly changing its stripes and flavors to evade responsibility and accountability. Reform is a used and infectious band aid passed from one city (or market as they see it) to another, ushered in by snake oil salesmen like Paul Vallas, John White, Michelle Rhee, Tony Bennet, and Joel Klein, who sell their tainted products with fancy labels and move on just before the locals drive them out with pitchforks or their frauds can be revealed and definitively tied to them.)
And Paul Vallas was brought to us by Paul Pastorek, a lawyer playing superintendent with a salary twice the southern average for such salaries in the second poorest state (Thanks Mississippi!) (Incidentally Paul Vallas is like like 6’5″ and Paul Pastorek is like five feet nothing, so you just know we had to call them Big P and little pp or Dr Evil and Mini p.)
Apparently legislators were swayed by Pastorek’s argument that he needed nearly half a million dollar annual salary (including both base salary and allowances) to support his family (which at last check did not exceed 100 members and probably none living at home. . .) Of course Paul Pastorek is an unclassified appointee who had the qualifications for state superintendent waived. This argument rarely is a consideration for rank and file employees who have been denied raises for as many as the past 5 years in some cases but 3 to 4 in most. Of course most state workers earn less than 30k per year, and many at earn less than the poverty level, in one of the poorest states, so they are already used to making do with less than their family can afford.
This salary fiasco was our first introduction, lawyer/lobbyist turned education reformer Paul Pastorek but a pretty good indication of where his priorities resided. Some of his first actions were to commence laying off employees left and right so he could afford reform fellow and TFA alums like Jacob Landry and Chris Meyer to direct our first runs at Race to the Top funds. Despite the fact Louisiana was considered early favorites for these hundreds of millions in potential funding, we lost out in every application process. We were told our initial application was flawed and was missing some components. However we chose to ignore these comments and submitted virtually the exact same proposal and lost out again. Despite these failures and lack of funding to support the radical changes outlined in Louisiana’s proposal, Paul Pastorek vowed to pursue the changes anyways, and proceeded to lay off more classified workers and replace them with more unclassified TFA fellows who roamed our halls playing games with balled up pieces of paper and looking for things to keep them busy (There was a corral of them right outside my office.) After Bobby Jindal was elected, he appointed Erin Bendilly to run a newly created department called Parental Options, a department tasked with expanding charter schools, virtual schools, and vouchers and suppressing all oversight and regulations of the same. Whenever the legislature passed a law or requested information about charters and their ilk, her job was to confound that request, scale back the response, muddy the narrative, and to interpret the law as not applicable to charters despite what our own lawyers said. Since many of our lawyers refused to agree with her interpretations they were encouraged to retire or were fired and replaced with more pliable ones. (After all, everyone knows lawyers’ jobs are to creatively interpret the law to suit your agenda, not uphold the law or interpret it as intended, right?) It was also widely known that Erin was to be the Governor’s ears and eyes at the department.
My only real direct interaction with Erin was over the Shadow School situation, (usually her messages and missives were delivered by word of mouth by traitorous sycophantic toadies – we assumed to avoid an e-mail trail.) Shadow Schools are a phenomenon born out of the need to evade accountability sanctions. These are high performing magnet schools/academies that either don’t get reported to the state or federal government, such as has happened in Iberville with the MSA East and West Academies, or schools that have every single student routed to another low performing school to raise that schools scores. When Erin first learned of this situation she seemed alarmed that parents were being misled by this policy, but a few well connected phone calls later she changed her tune and decided to cover for Edward Cancienne and his ploys. Until then I’d had hope that maybe some of the appointed folks that Jindal appointed (or his appointees) had a soul, but money, power and influence peddling had sadly corrupted them all, probably before the got to DOE. When the legislature passed laws that were designed to document and reveal the extent of bullying and corporal punishment prevalent in our public schools, Erin’s only concerns and communications revolved around making sure charters schools were held exempt from these laws. This was despite clear and unequivocal communications from our chief legal counsel, Joan Hunt, that charter schools were explicitly not exempt from following these laws, at least at first. You see, after a string of bullying related suicides a few years ago the legislature amended Louisiana’s laws on bullying. They named the revised law after Tesa Middlebrook, a teen who attended a High school assigned to the Recovery School District and handed over to a charter operator that Pointe Coupee lobbied fiercely to keep out, but to no avail.
(Pointe Coupee is one of our poorest parishes, so they kids fair poorly on our tests that are inherently biased against the poor. They do not measure progress, if you are a parent without the means to send your kids to private pre-k your kids will fall behind those that do. If you are a poor parish like Pointe Coupee or St Helena you have no rights in this state, you are merely your chattel, your children are property waiting to be sold to their new owners. Look at this graphic below if you have any doubts about who is being targeted. In Louisiana these numbers are even more stark.)
This revised Tesa Middlebrook anti-bullying act was championed by Gene Mills and the Louisiana Family Forum because it allowed teens to be bullied if they were gay, so long as the students doing the bullying claimed there were doing so for religious reasons, and it officially excluded charter schools, like the one Tesa Middlebrook attended, from having to report or address bullying incidents. Tesa Middlebrook’s family was not consulted about the naming of this legislation after her, and I can’t imagine they were as pleased with tragic irony at play here. This was a revision supported by Superintendent White. To date John White’s DOE has not released any numbers on bullying or corporal punishment. If he did, he might have to do something about it. What he has done is lay off most of the folks in charge of keeping track of discipline issues or who ran our positive behavior support system. Personally I don’t think our kids can only be reasoned with wooden boards, but John White knows otherwise. Our children are just things to him, so I suppose that attitude is at least internally consistent with his world view.
I once thought Paul Pastorek and Patrick Dobard (the current head of RSD) were misguided, but their hearts were in the right place when I learned about their interest in ramming through some collections on Corporal Punishment and Bullying. I met with Patrick several times, and he seemed pretty sincere about wanting to collect this information, and that Paul wanted to collect the corporal punishment data in particular to provide evidence about how widespread this practice was. They seemed to think we could turn on a “switch” and immediately collect all this data, like it existed in a magic data fairytale land. It took a few meetings before I understood just how they thought data collections worked and then a few more to explain we would have to define what we wanted LEAs to start collecting before they could send it to us to report on. I tried to encourage them to wait for the next school year, so their vendors could have a chance to prepare their systems for the new elements, and their school staff would have a chance to be trained on how to collect and report this data but I was overruled. I was a bit miffed by this and initially refused to have any part in the initial haphazard collection designed, but then a colleague named Kim Nesmith approached me and told me about “the pictures.” Dozens of pictures turned over to the legal department related to lawsuits. Pictures of tiny bruised, and bloodied butts and genitals of children who’d been hospitalized for state sanctioned abuse. I believed Kim, that she felt this was something important to address so I took over the compiling of the initial data which was way beyond her abilities despite what she promised to Dobard and Pastorek. What I saw in the data truly sickened me. I couldn’t believe the numbers I was getting and had to call some of the districts up to confirm them. There were four year olds and 18 year olds being paddled indiscriminately. Some kids were being beaten for uniform violations.
I was told this was something done for the children’s own good, since the alternative was suspension from school, and loss of valuable instructional time. I’m not sure why the children were being beaten and not the parents for having enough clean uniforms? Perhaps some people fell this is a reasonable response to poor families unable to afford enough uniforms or their own washer and dryer but to me this seemed like a gross civil rights abuse, heavy on the gross.
Some of the children were beaten several dozen times over the few months we collected data, sometimes several times the same day. I would like the people to consider the implications of doing that the next time they blithely quote Einstein as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is perhaps one of favorite catch phrases of reformers, but it never applies to taking over the schools of poor children and turning them into charters, or irrationally expanding substandard virtual schools such as is happening in Pennsylvania, despite all the evidence that indicates these schools are worse for almost all students, and sap valuable resources from more appropriate and productive education venues. It also never seems to apply to Corporal abuse.
However once John White came to town this initiative was squelched. I couldn’t quite understand why. John White claimed to care about our children, but this was just one of many examples that showed me just how wrong that claim was. After I left the agency I tried multiple times to get DOE to release this data to me. Eventually I even contacted Kim, who by this time had managed to bluff her way into a director position over data collections. When I asked this person, who had initially plead with me help her with this data collection she mocked me. “What are you going to do? Who are you going to tell, the media,” she laughed (I think it might have actually been an LOL) “Are you an activist now? Why do you care?”
I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. Of course it always appeared she was just kissing up to whatever ass was nearby, but for some reason I thought maybe this time was different. Crocodiles have tears for a reason I suppose. . .
Since then I’ve asked for all manner of data and over a year later I am still waiting. At this point I’m relatively sure I will never get any of the data I’ve asked for, but I will explain what I’ve asked for and why so you will see what they are hiding. For instance, did you know that many of the charters in New Orleans claiming graduation rates of 80-90% are actually only graduating around 50% of the students who initially enroll? They are using flawed numbers, semantics and percentages without numerators or denominators to disguise what is really going on. . . When I show you their tricks, maybe you’ll understand why they disgust me, and why I claim they are using our children as mutton more than sheep for the sheering.