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Posted at 10:48 AM ET, 03/07/2012

Ravitch: A war on public education in Louisiana

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch for her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website. The item was first published on March 6. In their blog, Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” a critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement that she just updated.

By Diane Ravitch

I went to Lafayette, La., last week to speak to the Louisiana School Boards Association. These men and women, representing their local schools from across the state, are trying to preserve public education in the face of an unprecedented onslaught by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. Jindal has the backing of the state’s corporate leaders, the nation’s biggest foundations, and some powerful out-of-state supporters of privatization for his sweeping attack on public education.

Gov. Jindal has submitted a legislative proposal that would offer vouchers to more than half the students in the state; vastly expand the number of privately managed charter schools by giving the state board of education the power to create up to 40 new charter authorizing agencies; introduce academic standards and letter grades for pre-schoolers; and end seniority and tenure for teachers.

Under his plan, the local superintendent could immediately fire any teacher — tenured or not — who was rated “ineffective” by the state evaluation program. If the teacher re-applied to teach, she would have to be rated “highly effective” for five years in a row to regain tenure. Tenure, needless to say, becomes a meaningless term, since due process no longer is required for termination.

The bill is as punitive as possible with respect to public education and teachers. It says nothing about helping to improve or support them. It’s all about enabling students to leave public schools and creating the tools to intimidate and fire teachers. This “reform” is not conservative. I would say it is radical and reactionary. But it is in no way unique to Louisiana.

Gov. Jindal is in a race to the bottom with other Republican governors to see who can move fastest to destroy the underpinnings of public education and to instill fear in the hearts of teachers. It’s hard to say which of them is worst: Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, or .... There are so many contenders for the title, it’s hard to name them all.

They all seem to be working from the same playbook: Remove any professionalism and sense of security from teachers; expand privatization as rapidly as possible, through charters and vouchers; intensify reliance on high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers and schools; tighten the regulations on public schools while deregulating the privately managed charter schools. Keep up the attack on many fronts, to confuse the supporters of public education.

The governors appear to be working from the ALEC playbook, ALEC (or the American Legislative Exchange Council) being an organization that shapes model legislation for very conservative state legislators.

Using the right coded language is a very important part of the assault on public education: Call it “reform.” Say that its critics are “defenders of the status quo,” even though the status quo is 10 years of federally mandated high-stakes testing and school closings. If possible, throw mud at the defenders of public education and say that they only have “adult interests” at heart, while the pseudo-reformers — the rich and powerful —are acting only in the interests of children.

Soon after I spoke, Jindal’s newly selected State Superintendent John White had a conference call with reporters to challenge what I said, which was odd because he was not present and did not hear what I said. He had no substantive response to my research review showing that charters, vouchers, and merit pay don’t produce better education. He had no substantive response to my critique of the vagaries of value-added evaluation of teachers. Instead, he pointed to the New Orleans model as a paradigm of “reform,” meaning, I suppose, the benefits of closing down public schools, turning the children over to private management, breaking the teachers’ union, and hiring inexperienced, uncertified teachers.

John White was selected by Jindal to lead the state after Jindal took control of the state board of education last fall. John White had led the New Orleans Recovery School District for only a few months when he was chosen to run the state. He is a former Teach for America teacher and a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Much of his time in New York City was spent closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools, the so-called portfolio approach (like the stock market, where you keep the winners and sell the losers). He had nothing to do with academic matters, with curriculum or instruction. So he is well-suited to what Bobby Jindal is trying to accomplish in Louisiana. By the way, it won’t surprise you to learn that Arne Duncan applauded Jindal’s appointment of White as state superintendent and called White a “visionary leader.” I guess, in Duncan’s worldview, a “visionary leader” is someone willing to shut down public schools no matter what the parents and local community say.

The New Orleans’ “miracle” is supposed to be evidence for the value of handing public education over to private managers and uncertified teachers. But the state’s own website contradicts that “miracle” narrative. The state education department rated 79 percent of the charters in the Recovery School District as D or F.

The state also reported that the New Orleans Recovery School District was next to last in academic performance of all 72 districts in the state. It has made gains, but only in comparison to its own low base line in 2007.

All this data was compiled before the Jindal takeover of the state board of education. Currently, researchers are having trouble getting any data from the state education department.

Why are the elites of both parties so eager to hand children and public dollars over to private corporations? Why are both parties complicit in the dismantling of public education? Why do so many Democrats at the top advocate what used to be known as the right-wing agenda for education? Is it all about campaign contributions? Why does the media let them get away with it? Why does anyone think that this will be good for our society in the short term or the long term? Why have the monied interests decided to privatize large swaths of public education? What happens to our democracy when the public sector is effectively whittled away or purchased by big money?

Diane

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