RSD’s Watered-down Incremental Miracle and Continued Fiscal Embarrassment
It is very important to those promoting corporate reform in The Big Easy to show just how wonderful, how miraculous, how “rebirthful,” state takeover of New Orleans schools has been. Hurricane Katrina hit almost eight years ago (August 29, 2005); in the storm’s aftermath (and already itching to get their hands on New Orleans’ schools), the Louisiana legislature passed Act 35, which declared any Louisiana school having a school performance score (SPS) below the latest state average of 87.4 as now a part of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD). Most of those unfortunate takeover schools were in New Orleans.
In 2006, the state of Louisiana assumed control of 94 schools formerly belonging to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).
What is often overlooked in current discussions of RSD “success” is the fact that in 2005, the state seized control of schools with SPSs less than the then-current state average of 87.4, not less than the predetermined “academically unacceptable” SPS of 60, as was in the original, pre-Katrina plan for state takeover (Act 9, 2003).
This oversight enables proponents of state takeover to falsely calculate RSD “progress” as SPS movement from 60 rather than 87.4, as the graphics in this Cowen Institute report deceptively promote.
That is like saying, “Yes, in 2005 we assumed control of 26 schools with SPSs greater than 60, but years later, we want to take credit for these SPSs exceeding 60.”
Even with this false advantage, RSD is still a colossal embarrassment to Jindalites if one considers actual letter grades of the schools.
Seven full school years after Katrina, not a single RSD school has a letter grade of A. Not one.
How can we still promote state takeover and overwhelming privatization in New Orleans as a Miracle? the troubled reformers asked.
Let’s focus on “incremental” change, came the answer.
And so, that is what this group has been doing, particularly of late. (Except for Jindal, who still tries to promote some real whoppers regarding RSD.) In December 2012, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Baton Rouge Advocate because I noticed that letter grades were missing from the RSD website. In its veiled hypocrisy, the RSD site focused on “progress” of schools, not the very letter grades that were supposed to make it easier for the public to “understand” school “quality.”
Also, in my recent reading of this 2007 article on RSD’s miserable first post-Katrina year, I noticed the amazing willingness of the pro-privatizing sect to ignore RSD’s utter flop:
…The RSD scores [for 2006-07] were abysmal even by the old NOPS (New Orleans Public Schools) standard. Fewer than 30 percent of its eighth graders even approached “basic” on Louisiana’s version of high-stakes testing called LEAP [Louisiana Education Assessment Program]. Technically, all those who failed to reach that relatively low mark must repeat the grade. …
What is already clear, however, is that the news media in New Orleans, focused as always on leading the cheer for the next savior, has allowed the failures of an entire year of public education at the expense of thousands of children to be forgotten, to quietly disappear as though it just takes a year of abject incompetence and remorseless failure to get the engine of public education re-started. …So far, all the privatizers and their enablers and accomplices have managed to do is create the illusion of the “buy-in”…. [Emphasis added.]
It’s all about the sale.
No one exemplifies the willingness to promote the two-dimensional, cardboard-cut-out image of RSD success more than former BESE member Leslie Jacobs. In this 2011 Cowen Institute report, Jacobs is credited for being the primary drafter of the original idea for RSD, resulting Act 9 in 2003:
In an effort to address the issues that faced New Orleans, Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Leslie Jacobs… the primary architect of the state’s accountability system, crafted and supported a bill allowing for state takeover of chronically low-performing schools. … The legislation, resulting in Act 9, allowed BESE to temporarily take over the management of failing schools and either operate the schools or contract out their operation to charter school operators. [Emphasis added.]
It is important to know what “the issues that faced New Orleans” were, for they were not effectively addressed by creation of RSD. The first involved OPSB’s low graduation rates and low test scores:
Prior to the creation of the RSD, the New Orleans public school system was widely recognized as one of the worst performing school districts in the nation. Test scores and graduation rates were dismal, with less than half of all students passing the state’s high-stakes standardized tests. [Emphasis added.]
Both test scores and graduation rates figure into school performance scores, and a school performance score below 87.4 was the sole determinant for a school’s placement in RSD following Katrina.
The second “issue” involved OPSB fiscal ineptness and impropriety:
Management of the [Orleans Parish school] system was in disarray. The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and its individual members unproductively micromanaged the superintendent and regularly engaged in ineffective and illegal practices in their role of governing the district. [Emphasis added.]
On June 11, 2013, Jacobs was granted an opportunity to speak (at her request) on WBOK1230am (New Orleans) to discuss (I am paraphrasing) “how well New Orleans’ schools are doing.” This radio request just happened to be following the Louisiana legislative session, a time when the reformer agenda took a few bad hits. During her speaking, I noticed that she wanted to combine both RSD and OPSB together in noting “school progress,” just as she slyly attempted to do months before in an editorial.
If RSD isn’t faring well, let’s mooch off of OPSB gains to make RSD appear to be doing better than it is.
I also noticed that in speaking about RSD specifically, Jacobs played the “progress” card– sure, RSD isn’t where it needs to be, but schools are “improving.”
There is only one problem with that argument, and in November 2010, Dr. Barbara Ferguson of Research on Reforms nailed it:
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education contends that the RSD is successful because it has made incremental progress over the past five years. However, consider the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) schools that made incremental progress for years before the takeover. Over 50 OPBS schools made incremental progress for years before they were taken over by the RSD. These schools made this incremental progress without the millions of dollars and the increases in per pupil expenditures allotted to the RSD.
The RSD was not charged with making incremental progress. The RSD was billed as the savior for the failing schools in New Orleans, and was granted additional funds and complete autonomy to resurrect the schools. Incremental progress was not the agenda. The agenda was to turnaround the failures of the New Orleans schools. Five years and millions of dollars later, the RSD has become a failed educational experiment. [Emphasis added.]
I appreciate organizations like Research on Reforms because they have preserved evidence of RSD failure by offering actual data, a luxury no longer afforded by John White and his data-hiding and incompetently-run LDOE.
Ferguson includes the details on 51 former OPSB schools taken over by RSD yet evidencing pre-Katrina the “incremental gains” reformers like Jacobs currently try to promote as evidence of RSD’s unique brand of “success.” Thirteen of the schools would not have been taken over at all in 2005 based upon the 2003 standard of SPS = 60 as “academically unacceptable.”
I examined the 2012 SPSs to see how many of the included RSD schools are currently above the 2005 threshold of 87.4. (Not all RSD schools are accounted for by LDOE on its own data spreadsheets, a casualty of an administration large on former-TFA hires and low on demonstrated competence.)
The 2012 school performance scores have problems. (See immediate links.) Nevertheless, they are the standard White and BESE insist upon using to show “reforms are working,” so let’s look at RSD in it’s incremental-improvement finery seven school years after an SPS of 87.4 landed 94 schools right into the arms of the charter-promoting LDOE/BESE.
The 2012 SPS spreadsheet includes 59 schools labeled as RSD-NO.
Eleven out of 59 RSD-NO schools are currently above the 2005 takeover threshold score of 87.4.
Of those eleven, four are KIPP schools, a group that Ferguson excluded from her 2010 comparison for their not being “open enrollment” schools and therefore able to exercise student selection in a manner not afforded traditional public schools (i.e, via “restricted continued enrollment requirements,” such as discipline codes stricter than those of public schools).
So. Of 59 RSD-NO schools accounted for on the 2012 SPS spreadsheet as it was publicized on the former LDOE website in October 2012, only seven currently exceed the 2005 threshold for RSD takeover.
I understand why Ms. Jacobs and other reform types push the “incremental” brand of “miracle.” The truth is bad for business.
The Incremental Miracle The Just Happened to Already Occur Pre-Katrina.
Incidentally, the first school taken over by LDOE/BESE, Pierre Capdau, has not yet reached the 2005 SPS = 87.4 takeover score (a score that corresponds to a letter grade of D).
With Pierre Capdau in mind, consider the following statement from the 2003-2011 Cowen Institute report:
Intended as a mechanism for restructuring and reform, the RSD was never meant to be a permanent part of the public school governance landscape in New Orleans. [Emphasis added.]
Really?? If that were the case, then a school like Pierre Capdau, assumed pre-Katrina, should be returned to OPSB for exceeding an SPS of 60, the cutoff number that landed it in RSD-NO in the first place.
So, which is it: Is Pierre Capdau a “failure” or a “success”? Sure, its 2012 SPS is 75.8 (D), but the score just beyond the 2005 threshold for RSD takeover, 87.5, is also a D. If Capdau is a failure, then that is the ultimate embarrassment for state takeover as a solution. On the other hand, if Capdau is a success, then the original mission of RSD is a lie. Capdau should be returned to OPSB, period.
Now for the issue of OPSB incompetence and corruption as another of Jacobs’ continued reasons why state takeover is necessary. Let us consider some of the amazing corruption transpiring at a time when an incredible amount of federal aid was flowing into New Orleans following Katrina. The following occurred in RSD’s first year (2006-07):
…There was the $20 million the RSD managed to spend on security for its 22 campuses, altering the ratio of students to security guards from a pre-Katrina 333-to-one to a post-Katrina 37-to-one, while employing the services of out-of-state security firms with no background in school security and a tendency to hire inappropriately young and inexperienced personnel. There were the problems the private firm Sodexho had providing warm (much less hot) meals to the 22 schools, many of which in nine months never saw a single hot food delivery. (Frequently, Sodexho’s cold food offerings arrived still frozen.) There was the failure to secure the perimeters of the scores of damaged, unopened public schools under the RSD’s stewardship, resulting in gross vandalism, theft of building materials, and dangers to the surrounding communities. There was RSD’s consistent inability to provide text books, curriculum guidance, and other teaching materials to virtually every campus for most of the school year, its inability to hire enough qualified teachers to staff at even a less-than-ideal student-teacher ratio, and its tendency to hire young, inexperienced teachers who quit without notice once they encountered the reality of the mission. …
The relatively gargantuan salaries of many of the consultants who appeared to rule the new system was another factor in the public’s general unease. Functionaries of the accounting firm Alvarez & Marsal, for example, which will have taken more than $50 million out of its New Orleans public schools’ operation by year’s end, were earning in the multiple hundreds of thousands, billing at anywhere from $150 to more than $500 per hour. The firm’s contracts continued unchallenged, despite the fact that one of its chief assignments — the disposition of left-over NOPS real estate — was being handled without the services of a single architect, engineer, or construction expert. This omission cost the city a year of progress in determining how and where to rebuild broken schools, and endangered hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA money. It only came to light when the two Pauls [Pastorek and Vallas] were forced to hire yet more consultants for real estate duty, and to bring in the National Guard to oversee the engineering operations. …
…The security firm that billed RSD more than $20 million defends its profiteering by noting that no student was killed during the previous school year — thin proof given that no student was killed on campus in the previous 60 years either (with one sad, anomalous exception). That company, the Guidry Group from Texas, will keep its contract in the coming school year. Sodexho has never explained why it could not deliver hot food to those 22 campuses, and no public or media entity ever held its feet to the fire for that explanation. Its contract, too, continues. Alvarez & Marsal, for its part, merely said “whoops” when its lack of competence in the field for which it held a $30 million contract was exposed. [Emphasis added.]
All of this corruption and mismanagement occurred in the first year of the state-run RSD.
During Paul Vallas’ time a RSD superintendent (2007-2011), every annual state audit evidenced issues of fiscal irresponsibility and corruption. Here are some “fiscal blunder” highlights:
Report ZF65 from the ISIS/HR payroll system showed that the system calculated that former employees had been overpaid a total of $427,695 as of September 30, 2007.
[In 2007] RSD could not confirm eligibility for 51 approved applications for free or reduced price meals for 70 students but did not reduce or terminate program benefits for these students. The employee who performed the verifications reported that he was not adequately trained to evaluate the compliance requirements.
And some more awful handling of federal aid to RSD, chiefly during Vallas’ tenure:
A state audit released Monday faults the Recovery School District for not properly overseeing modular campus construction after Hurricane Katrina, resulting in $6.1 million in questionable costs on the $105 million project. The project’s original budget increased by $29 million thanks to 60 change orders and contract amendments, the audit says. …
The [January 2007 to September 2009] report lands as New Orleans works its way through a massive school rebuilding plan funded in large part by nearly $2 billion in FEMA funds. It also comes just a week after Purpera’s office issued a separate audit showing that $2.7 million in property had been lost, misplaced or stolen from the Recovery School District in the last 4 years. …
The [January 2007 to September 2009] audit found that Arrighi-Simoneaux charged the RSD $170,571 for fuel for temporary generators that was never provided and $37,843 for 16 light pole foundations that were never built. An additional $472,852 that was charged for foundations “appears to be unreasonable for the service provided,” according to the audit. The firm billed at least $139,000 in work beyond the scope of the contract.
Arrighi-Simoneaux’s unit pricing may also have been too high. For instance, the company charged $110 to drill each of 180 four-inch holes in wooden floors, though the task takes less than 30 seconds, auditors say. [Emphasis added.]
But, wait. There’s more, extending beyond Vallas to RSD Superintendents White and Dobard (an “incompetence cumulative effect,” if you will):
For six years in a row, Louisiana’s Recovery School District has failed to take adequate precautions against theft, resulting in almost $75,000 in missing and stolen property in 2012 and more than $2.7 million over the past four years, according to a Louisiana Legislative Auditor report. During that time 1,633 items were lost or stolen.
The district also continues to lag on recording employee separation dates and risks paying people who no longer work there, though no over-payments were found. The auditor checked 14 records and found the district was late on entering the employee’s final day every time — 107 days late, in one case. The auditor has recommended that RSD fix these problems for the past five years. [Emphasis added.]
I assure you, I could keep going. (I haven’t even touched on Vallas’ use of his Louisiana-taxpayer-funded auto for regular personal trips to visit his family in Chicago or John White’s unequivocal refusal to oversee charter schools.)
How many privatizing superintendents does it take to competently run RSD?
We do not yet know.
But Leslie Jacobs is devoted to the privatization cause and willing in 2013 to continue to insist that “New Orleans schools” are miraculous.
Influential people like John Merrow are so sold on Jacobs’ fabrication that they are producing documentaries on The Miracle. Fortunately, sanity is available to set the record straight for those willing to listen.
I think the true miracle lay in RSD running at all given the absence of competent leadership.
There is no denying that New Orleans schools pre-Katrina required some sort of intervention, if for no other reason than to address the corruption and mismanagement in the administration of the schools, which, in turn, certainly affects the quality of education possible in the classroom. However, it is quite the jump in logic to assume privatization is The Answer to addressing any problems in the public sector:
To be sure, the failures of public education in pre-Katrina New Orleans are well-documented and constantly reiterated in forum after forum. Even given the inherent problems of a teach-the-test national environment where broad learning is consistently narrowed and critical thinking is less revered than memorization, it can be said clearly that the public schools in New Orleans were not doing a good enough job. In New Orleans, moreover — perhaps even more than in most other cities — education had become, for a few politicians, little more than a way to generate graft.
But even conceding all this, one has to ask where on earth the proponents of a “market-driven” approach to public education got the idea that anything the public sector could do, the private sector could do better. Did they get it from the sterling job private hospital corporations and insurance companies have done to assure that all Americans have access to adequate medical care? Did they get it watching the delivery of privately contracted services in Iraq or in post-Katrina New Orleans — two places where any goods or services might cost a hundred times their actual value (sold by the private sector to government) and still not function correctly? [Emphasis added.]
Leslie Jacobs could do so much more for New Orleans’ schools if she and other Jindal die-hards would publicly come clean and say, “You know, it sounded like a good idea at the time, but now I see that RSD is headed nowhere productive.”
Now THAT would be a miracle.