Dennis Persica: New school year marked by lawsuits

Another Louisiana school year has begun. With more than a month remaining in summer, students are trying to forget their lazy days, getting themselves up earlier in the morning and trudging off to learn.

The year begins, however, as chaos reigns in the state education system. There have been suits and countersuits.

State education officials say the controversial Common Core educational standards are in place for this school year. But last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal sought a state court injunction against using tests aligned to the Core standards.

Jindal claims Common Core is “a scheme to drive education curriculum from Washington, D.C.” In his request for an injunction, he makes some curious assertions.

“Tests drive curriculum for the school year,” he said at one point. Elsewhere he notes, “what’s tested is what’s taught.”

With those comments, he joins those who have objected to standardized tests since they first arrived on the scene in Louisiana in the 1990s. Critics objected that during the school year, students are taught to pass the test, not to understand the subjects they are studying or to learn critical thinking skills. A decade-and-a-half later, the governor has finally jumped on that bandwagon as well.

Meanwhile, another Louisiana native has gained a high profile in the education debate, especially as it relates to teaching.

Former CNN newscaster Campbell Brown, the daughter of former Louisiana Commissioner of Insurance Jim Brown, is part of a group that takes credit for a recent court ruling in California that knocks out the teacher tenure system. With the group’s support, a similar suit has been filed in New York.

On an appearance on “The Colbert Report,” Brown refused to shine a light on the donors to the organization, even though her group is called The Parents’ Transparency Project. Brown also is on the board of directors of Success Academy, a charter school operator in New York.

Many critics of charter schools or standardized testing, or both, see a corporate connection behind what is being touted as school reform. There’s a lot of money to be made in developing standardized tests, critics say. Meanwhile, many charter schools are run by large national entities.

It’s not surprising then, according to detractors, to see hedge-fund managers and other corporate types behind the moves to support charter schools and standardized tests and to bring down teacher tenure.

Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush, has flipped sides in the debate over charters and standardized testing.

“The campaign to ‘reform’ schools by turning public money over to private corporations is a great distraction from our system’s real problems: Academic performance is low where poverty and racial segregation are high,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year.

The “charter industry,” as she calls it, is “aggressive and entrepreneurial.” Looking for high test scores they can tout, charters purposely avoid registering students with disabilities or those for whom English is not their primary language, she wrote.

Ravitch pointed to the American Civil Liberties Union’s complaints against New Orleans charters for their treatment of students with disabilities.

Jindal definitely doesn’t share Ravitch’s view on charter schools. He’s also unlikely to worry much about corporations seeking to make money in education. On Common Core, he claims to be more worried about a “federal takeover” of education, a concern his fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, doesn’t seem to share.

And so, we set forth on another school year. But with lawsuits to be heard and rulings to be handed down, this may be most eventful school year in a long time.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.