Power From the PPEL

K-12 public education in Louisiana has been a battle zone since Bobby Jindal and his allies rammed through a package of what they termed “reforms” in the opening weeks of the 2012 Regular Session of the Louisiana legislature. The bills – which ranged from changing teacher tenure laws, to restricting how school districts could hire and fire superintendents, to creating a class of privately operated charter schools that could have access to local tax dollars – were approved by lawmakers despite the fact that most (including some authors of the bills) were not clear about what the bills did.

espinozadaspitThe Jindal education agenda constituted an attack on democratic institutions. It decreased local control of school districts and tax dollars and shifted at least some of that to Baton Rouge. The fact that Baton Rouge made the power grab seemed agreeable to those who would have howled in indignation had the grab been made by the federal government.

The then-governor’s agenda was the second part of a multi-phased takeover of public education. The first had come in 2005, after free-market evangelist Milton Friedman, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, noted that the destruction of the Orleans Parish Public Schools by the failure of the federal levee system after Katrina created an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over there. It was Friedman’s last big public pronouncement.

New Orleans schools and teachers were the targets of what Naomi Klein calls “shock doctrine” in her book by the same name. In its 2005 special session, the Louisiana legislature passed and Governor Kathleen Blanco signed Act 35, which vastly expanded the scope of school takeovers by the Recovery School District. When the dust settled, 102 of 126 Orleans Parish schools were taken over by the RSD. The RSD later took over schools in East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes.

In 2011, a group of billionaires took a peculiar interest in the elections for Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Some of the billionaires had ties to John White who was appointed superintendent of the RSD in the spring of 2011. The BESE members the billionaires’ money helped elect selected White to run Louisiana public education in early 2012. White brought with him a satchel full of ideas he’d picked up along the way in various pro-charter operations such as The Broad Academy and Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change. White’s ideas were incorporated into Jindal’s education package in 2012 and the fighting has not stopped since.

In Lafayette, the fight emerged after parish public school superintendent Pat Cooper told BESE that he endorsed charter schools that his local board had rejected.

Some of Cooper’s former supporters were shocked by his backing of charters (as well as by his characterization of Lafayette residents). Unable to back ideas being pushed by the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce (remember them?), these supporters of traditional public education formed their own group – Power of Public Education Lafayette.

Cooper has moved on. John White clings to his job in Baton Rouge. PPEL remains a force in Lafayette.

Two of the leaders — Kathleen Schott Espinoza and Toby Daspit — joined me to talk about the state of public education in Louisiana and in Lafayette after these years of tumult. We also discussed how they were drawn into education advocacy.

Bonus coverage! Here’s a video I produced and aired on the 2011 BESE elections.

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