By Robert Mann
Gov. Bobby Jindal says he’s outraged about the U.S. Justice Department’s pleading that raises questions about the legality of some of the private-school vouchers award to minority children in 13 school districts that are under federal desegregation orders.
Jindal, in speeches and a TV spot, is crying foul, saying the federal government is denying parents the right to choose where their children should attend school. And he claims it’s a merely a P.R. “stunt” to cite these desegregation cases for raising concerns about the vouchers’ legality.
But, strangely enough, Jindal’s Department of Education is very much in favor of denying parent choice and wants to keep a group of children in their failing schools. And the Department cites the exact federal desegregation orders that now offend Jindal so much.
In St. Helena Parish, a group of parents recently sued the state, arguing that their children are trapped in a failing middle school being run by the state’s Recovery School District. They want out of the failing RSD school — the parish’s only middle school. And they hope to expand the parish’s elementary and high schools to accommodate those returning students.
State Education Superintendent John White and Jindal, who preach that parents are always the best judges of which schools kids should attend, fought the parents with all their might. And they won.
In fact, you may be surprised to learn that in rebuffing these parents, White and his Department of Education argued in federal court that allowing the parents to remove their children from the RSD schools, “would likely result in a further segregative effect,” would “promote segregation,” and would “further dilute the already small white student population.”
Whatever happened to allowing parents to decide? (That is one of the questions I pose in my Sunday column in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.)
The Department of Justice responded to Jindal’s complaints, noting in a statement that the governor’s own voucher law says his program must comply with federal desegregation suits. “The department’s request is fully consistent with the Louisiana law that established the voucher program, which provides that the program is ‘subject to any court-ordered desegregation plan in effect for the school system in which the public school is located.’”
The whole thing smacks of hypocrisy and double standards.
So, I contacted St. Helena Superintendent Dr. Kelli Joseph and asked her to help me better understand what’s really going on in St. Helena and how it all relates to the larger questions about Jindal’s so-called education “reforms”:
Mann: What is the fundamental issue in this case to you? It is the parents’ right to choose their schools? The poor quality of the RSD school? Or is it the improving resources and facilities of the St. Helena Parish School Board?
Joseph: The fundamental issue in our case is this: Does the St. Helena Parish School Board have the right, as other school districts do, to reconfigure its grades. The RSD says NO because the “economies of scale” doesn’t allow for us to duplicate services. We say YES because it’s our fundamental right as a Board and parents would have a choice where to send their children. We have the resources to provide our students with services the RSD cannot (dual enrollment, Carnegie Units, etc.) Our educational program, albeit not considered good by the state, is better than RSD. We’ve made progress with our students (most improved in 2012, technology upgrades, District Accreditation, etc.). We will also have new and renovated facilities for our students. The RSD wants us to pay for renovations on a facility we will not use once they are gone next year.
Mann: Why do these parents want their children out of the RSD school?
Joseph: Parents want their children out of the RSD school because they are not satisfied with the services their student(s) receive. There is a disconnect from the local school district. Our reconfiguration would create less transition for students and more educational opportunities. More importantly, students who attend the RSD school do not benefit from being a part of an AdvancEd District Accredited school system.
Mann: When you and others in St. Helena see Bobby Jindal on TV or in the newspaper talking about the importance of parental choice, what do you think? Why doesn’t that seem to apply in St. Helena?
Joseph: I think St. Helena, due to its past performance, small size and lack of political clout, isn’t given the respect and attention it deserves. I believe at one point, the idea was floated to take over the entire school district. It was to be the “poster child” for recent reforms – that is until we showed marked academic growth and more community support. Four tax measures passed and new buildings are being constructed. To think that parents in St. Helena shouldn’t have a choice, but others elsewhere do, is hypocritical at best.
Mann: Do you believe an RSD school was ever an appropriate situation in St. Helena? Joseph: I absolutely do not believe an RSD school was ever an appropriate situation in St. Helena Parish. The RSD is not an appropriate choice for any school district.
Mann: We know that U.S. District Judge James Brady has been to St. Helena to see your schools. What about Jindal or White? Have you invited them?
Joseph: We have not invited Jindal to our school district. However, [First Lady] Supriya Jindal visited with us. Her foundation donated interactive whiteboards to our elementary school. John White visited our Leadership Summit at LSU in 2011. He made it clear to us then that he had no plans of relinquishing control of our middle school. Our success over the past two years is of no consequence to them. The RSD has taken sole credit for all the good changes that have occurred in our school district.
- Jindal’s voucher program: a vote-buying scam aimed at the Christian right (bobmannblog.com)
- Federal judge tours St. Helena schools (sfgate.com)
- Bobby Jindal: War with feds over school vouchers still on (educationviews.org)
- Jindal and Vitter: the stunt men of Louisiana politics (bobmannblog.com)
- St. Helena board seeks to regain control of school (sfgate.com)
- La. governor demands feds drop suit against state (mysanantonio.com)