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Ed “Reform” in Louisiana. Coming Soon to Your State?

By Nancy Flanagan — March 07, 2012 5 min read
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What has happened down here is the winds have changed
The river rose all day; the river rose all night.
Some people got lost in the flood. Some people got away all right.

Louisiana 1927, Randy Newman

Diane Ravitch’s brilliant, must-read blog, Bobby Jindal vs. Public Education, caused me to pull out an e-mail I got from a teacher buddy in Louisiana a few weeks back. My friend is a National Board Certified Teacher, with a long and distinguished career in education. She wasn’t invited to Bobby Jindal’s education summit--but a Teach for America corps member she’s mentoring was, and urged her to attend, saying that she’d learn about the exciting innovations planned for public education in Louisiana.

So my friend took a day away from the classroom and drove up to the Capitol with her mentee. She took notes all day, and sent the following dismayed message:

The Education Summit in Baton Rouge was an invitation-only event for 800 carefully selected people. As we stood around at registration, waiting for the doors to the main hall to open, it quickly became obvious that some of us were there merely as observers; the rest were stakeholders.

When the doors opened, we were instructed to go to the front tables if our nametag had a table designation on it; if not, we were to find a seat in the back. Thus began the division of the haves and the have-nots. Sponsors, legislators, school board members, TFA, chamber of commerce, Business Report, BESE, and other stakeholders were of course seated at reserved tables in the front.

Those of us who are really in the education business (teachers, principals, superintendents, university people) were left to fend for themselves and find a seat. At lunchtime, the haves got lunch served to them; the have-nots left the room to stand in the buffet line for their share of rubber chicken and mushy green beans.

Morning began with introductions from Rep. Steven Carter and Senator Conrad Appel; both met with rousing applause from the front, not so much from the back. Jeb Bush took the stage to tell us what a wonderful job he had done (singlehandedly) in Florida to fire bad teachers, raise the graduation rates, and buck the teachers unions. He quoted General Petraeus, saying we must “focus on the big idea and not let go.” He also predicted that, “over the next five years you are going to see some train wrecks around the country as standards go higher and people fail to meet them.”

Bush said that new Common Core standards will create enormous opportunity for kids. If we create high, uniform standards for everyone, then everyone will meet them and America will be back on top. By having a voucher system, we’re putting pressure on the system so that it will get better. And finally, Jeb said “Governor Jindal deserves a lot praise for putting his plan out there and making it public.”

The love fest among the “haves” continued with the next speaker, Dr. Howard Fuller, from The Black Alliance for Educational Options. He spoke about the need for strong leaders (something our state has so far ignored, choosing to blame teachers instead). He said the current educational system itself is “dysfunctional.” As a teacher, I appreciated most of what he said, especially since it made the front of the room squirm a little.

When Dr. Fuller was finished, Paul Pastorek got up to introduce the next speaker, who is obviously an old buddy of his - Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Instruction. The love fest at this point became nauseating.

Did you know that Mr. Bennett has singlehandedly reformed public education in his state, too? And that he’s made a lot of enemies along the way? He believes that the system will be fixed with...competition. (And did you know that he was once a coach?)

Governor Jindal was next, but first we had to watch a video of how successful the “reform” in New Orleans has been - a few testimonials by parents touting the wonderful new system. Then Jindal read his script quickly, never looking up.

One of the only things he said that struck me was that “we’ve taken steps to reward our teachers...” Is that why he took away the stipend for National Board Certified Teachers? Did you know that having a great teacher can change a child’s life? Really? Finally--we should not be wasting money on failing schools. Give that money to parents as vouchers so they can choose. My question: What will be left for them to choose from?

Lunch, and then a fiery speech by Joel Klein. He’s part of the gang; they stopped just short of slapping each other on the back or high-fiving at their astounding success. Klein began by telling us how privileged we were to have John White as our state superintendent. Klein said three things must change if we are to have a better system:

1. We need national standards.
2. Choice and competition will cause us to be better and innovate.
3. Professionalize teaching and make teachers our “heroes.”

Then a “panel discussion” from Ben Austin, Director, Parent Revolution, California; Scott Shirey, Executive Director, KIPP Delta Public Schools, Arkansas; and Marc Sternberg, Deputy Chancellor for Portfolio Planning, NYC DOE. (All three are TFA alums, and I really had trouble focusing at this point, so I took a break, took a walk - there were more people milling around in the lobby than there were in the room listening.)

Mary Landrieu, who was the only woman at the speaker’s table was next. She stopped short of endorsing Jindal’s plan, was very careful to say that we are at a tipping point but not that his plan was the answer. She did agree that choice is a “tool to engender competition, which is good for a system that has gotten lazy.”

Then John White spoke for about 5 minutes, starting with a “funny” story about how he took this job so that he could get more Twitter followers. Well, at least the front of the room laughed. I ducked out at that point.

The whole day was kind of like one long Super Bowl commercial for the next best thing in education. It was a cheerleading session created by Teach For America, its sponsors and friends to promote the privatization of public education. I wasn’t wearing the right cheerleading uniform - but neither was the rest of the back of the room...

In her blog, Diane Ravitch wonders: “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?” Good question.

I just heard from my friend. Her Teach for America mentee is leaving teaching at the end of the school year, because she wants to “work in policy.”

As Randy Newman says: Some people get lost in the flood, but some get away all right.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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