“You Can’t Change the Facts”– Unless You’re the Senate Education Committee

During the special session in February, state Rep. Ted James told the full House, “You guys can have different opinions, but you can’t have your own facts,” echoing the words of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Apparently, Louisiana’s Senate Education Committee didn’t get the memo. Thursday’s committee meeting began with its vice-chairman, Sen. John Milkovich, in charge, as Chairman Blade Morrish was presenting his bills in other committees. First up was a bill by Sen. Conrad Appel, to establish a certification program for teachers with expertise in dyslexia. Appel introduced his expert witness, Dr. Laura Cassidy. “And you’re with…?” Milkovich asked. “The Dyslexia Resource Center,” she replied. “She’s with the Senator,” Appel interjected, to appreciative chuckles from the panel and the audience. (Her husband is Louisiana’s senior U.S. Senator, Bill Cassidy). “She’s created a school here in Baton Rouge that’s been very successful,” Appel continued. Not quite. Dr. Cassidy’s school almost lost its charter this winter. Louisiana Key Academy’s charter was up for renewal at the start of 2018, but as the school had received “F” grades under the state accountability system for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, it was eligible for closure. Yet because dyslexia is a disability, in February, BESE agreed to change the rubric for measuring that school’s progress, and granted a 3-year charter renewal. The bill for teacher certification was approved, without objection. (And take note: we’ll be coming back to charter schools later.) Next, the committee considered Sen. Milkovich’s SB 253. He explained it by saying, “This just allows school employees to participate in faith-based activities before and after school, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their duties.” Ummm, no. That is current law. Actually, Milkovich’s bill would instead permit school employees “to participate in student-led prayer activities at any time during the day, provided such participation does not interfere with the employee’s prescribed work duties.” That’s potentially problematic, as it treads very close to the many U.S. Supreme Court decisions circumscribing the conditions under which prayer in public schools is permissible. The initial ruling, in Engel v. Vitale in 1962, involved a New York state-required prayer developed during the mid 1950’s, at the height of the “Red Scare,” also known as McCarthyism. (More on that, too, as we move along.) Still, Senate Education Committee members, accepting Milkovich’s description of his bill, advanced it without opposition. They also okayed Sen. Regina Barrow’s SB 224. It requires “display of the national motto ‘In God We Trust’” in every public school building in the state. It also requires instruction on that motto’s “patriotic custom”. “We have seen the moral decay in our world,” Barrow said of her bill. “This will improve our schools. We need to display this patriotic motto to prepare and help our children – to make sure that they have that introduction to morality, because we can’t be sure they’re getting it at home.” To borrow a line from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “Moral” is defined as “of or relating to principles of right or wrong behavior.” In other words, “treat others as you would want to be treated” is morality. “In God We Trust”? Not so much. Perhaps the senator might have herself benefited from some instruction on the history of the motto. It was first used on coins during the Civil War. Years later, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order that it not be used, because he regarded it as sacrilegious. But again, in the mid-1950’s, when many feared the global takeover by “God-hating communists from Russia,” Congress passed Public Law 140, designating it the national motto and mandating its appearance on U.S. Coins and currency. (Not coincidentally, this is the same era that placed the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – prompted by the same fears of Russian dominance.) And while it’s true that Tennessee and Florida have this year passed laws essentially identical to Barrow’s SB 224, challenges to the constitutionality of those laws remain a very real possibility, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While challenges over the motto’s use on U.S currency have been tried and failed, the Supreme Court has traditionally been stricter about separation of church and state when those issues influence schoolchildren. Yet to resounding compliments of “great bill” by committee members, this measure passed, without objection. Senator Barrow’s next bill did not go as smoothly, however. SB 292 would require the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to conduct a performance audit on charter schools before their charters could be extended. Barrow was joined in her presentation by Rep. Joseph Bouie, who is a retired Southern University-New Orleans professor in social work. “Under the ‘Charter School Demonstration Act’, these schools were supposed to find evidence-based practices by experimenting, and reports on their research were required. But instead, the Louisiana Department of Education has implemented benign neglect of that purpose. They allow charters do whatever they want, without providing empirical data,” Bouie told the committee. “It’s time to stop the benign neglect.” Noting that school performance scores are what have been used as the main guide whether to renew a school’s authorization to operate, Bouie also pointed out that the Superintendent of Education has changed the method of calculating school performance scores year over year. “That alters the data. When we keep changing what is considered failing, we don’t get a true picture. And we’re 51st in the nation in education.” That got under Sen. Appel’s skin. Appel, a Republican real estate broker from suburban Jefferson Parish, was chairman of the Senate Education Committee during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s second term, and was heavily invested in making the 2012 business- and industry-backed education reforms happen. (Appel was also the author of an ill-fated 2011 bill to merge SUNO with the University of New Orleans.) “I totally reject your implication that there is some conspiracy to change or hide data regarding student performance,” Appel said. “As the former chairman of this committee, I can assure you we worked very hard to require transparency and accountability for every public school – and charters are public schools! “And for your information, according to the most recent U.S. News and World Report, we are 45th in education.” “Yet it appears that the only place the benign neglect happens is where there’s a majority African-American district,” Bouie continued, pointing specifically to New Orleans, which now has only charter schools instead of traditional public schools. “Here’s one example. Tulane University documented, because they were doing some of the early data collection, that we have 24,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of school and out of work. They’re youngsters who came through the experiment – the charter schools. Now as a social scientist – because we have a crime problem in New Orleans– I looked at that age group of youngsters, those who are both the victims and the perpetrators, Sen. Appel. The ages were the same: 16-24.” Appel started unraveling. “Sir, let me tell you something – you are so far off-base with your racial comments. It’s disgusting! This committee has spent year after year after year trying to help all the children of this state. There’s no discussion of race here. There’s no discussion of people pushing kids off on the schools. Those same rules apply in every school in this state. If there’s a bunch of kids out of work that are 24 years old in the city of New Orleans, it’s because the god-damn city doesn’t produce jobs for those children. That’s why they’re out of work!” Appel shouted. “But it’s not why, and I’m not going to let you say that,” Bouie replied, calmly. “Oh, B-S! “ Appel yelled over him. “B-S!” “The truth of the matter is, in the schools in New Orleans, you’re talking about 90% of those schools being African-American students,” Bouie said, stoicly. “I don’t care if they’re purple! There’s no jobs in New Orleans! There’s no jobs!!! Don’t you understand that?” Appel thundered, waving his arms wildly. “We’re talking about education,” Bouie responded. “No, we’re talking about kids that are out of school because they have no jobs!” Chairman Blade Morrish admonished Appel to calm down, but he leaned back in his chair, folding his arms in disgust and remarked, “It’s ridiculous!” “Don’t take it personally,” Bouie said with equanimity. “It’s the truth.” Appel leaned forward aggressively, saying,”I am taking it personally! You accuse us of being racists!” “I didn’t accuse you…” Bouie began. “You DID! There’s a camera recording it right there!” “I said that 90 percent…” “Rewind it! You go back and watch!” Appel screamed. “I said 90-percent of those students are African-American,” Bouie remarked. “That’s what I said, and that’s true, Senator Appel – whether you like it or not. That’s true. You can’t change the facts.” (And, apparently, you should never let the facts get in the way of a good old-fashioned hissy fit.) But Morrish attempted peacemaking again, saying, “Conrad, members – take a deep breath.” And while calmer discussion on the bill continued for some time, ultimately Senator Barrow voluntarily deferred the measure. It’s interesting/ironic to note how many of these issues have links back to the mid-1950s – including questions of racial segregation and education equality raised by the charter school discussion. The landmark decision requiring desegregation of schools, Brown v. Board of Education, was handed down in 1954. Here we are today, again looking at putting prayer and God in schools, just as national questions of Russian influence on our country’s affairs are again part of the national conversation.
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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.