Category Archives: education

How the state of Louisiana deals with its best and brightest


You could put this one in the “no good deed goes unpunished” file, or simply roll your eyes, sigh and mutter “Louisiana” on the exhale. If you read my last post, you know my brother in law, Folwell Dunbar, is a public-interest hero. While working at the Louisiana state agency that regulates charter schools, Folwell reported being offered a $20,000 bribe by someone apparently connected to Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans, which he was in the process of auditing. Folwell turned down the bribe and did exactly what a good public servant should do — he wrote a report documenting the offer, and he reported the attempted bribe to the police. During the audit, he found the school had been grossly mismanaged and recommended that the state board of education take away its charter.

The state did nothing for a year, but then the New Orleans Times-Picayune dug up Folwell’s report via a public records request and wrote a story about it. Suddenly, the state decided it was time to suspend the school and investigate its performance.

But because this is Louisiana, Folwell did not receive the award or promotion he deserved for doing his job well and ethically and bringing a problem to light in the proper way, so it could be dealt with. Instead, a few days after the original Times-Picayne report (which, by the way, Folwell had no role in inspiring), he was fired with no real explanation. Here’s how the Times-Picayne put it:

Folwell Dunbar, a state education official who warned of problems at Abramson Science and Technology Charter School more than a year ago, confirmed Thursday that he was fired this week along with his boss at the department, Jacob Landry. The two were let go amid a new state investigation at Abramson prompted by fresh revelations about what Dunbar and other experts found during an audit of the school carried out in April and May of 2010. State records show Dunbar let his colleagues know last year that someone associated with the school tried to offer him money during the audit, an incident that brings to light the connections that Abramson apparently shares with Turkish-run businesses and charter schools in other states. He concluding [sic] that Abramson was at the very least “terribly mismanaged” and recommended that the state board of education take away its charter. … [Acting state Superintendent Ollie] Tyler provided few details behind her decision to fire two department officials this week. She did not mention their names and only cited a need for “new direction and leadership” at the department’s charter school office.

Although what I’ve described looks bad enough, there is more here than meets the eye. This Abramson outfit  seems to be part of an odd operation in which a number of apparently connected Turkish groups have gotten approval to run charter schools across America, some 120 of them. The New York Times has been investigating this remarkable indication of the international superiority of Turkish educational practices. I have heard indications that the FBI is investigating, as well, and if it isn’t, it should be.

Folwell Dunbar is a highly educated, deeply experienced, enormously dedicated educator and exactly the kind of person America needs in the trenches as it attempts to retool its educational systems to serve the country in an age of technological flux and international competition. In responding to this inappropriate and senseless firing, he has been his usual classy self, issuing a polite statement that says he is “terribly shocked and disappointed” by the way he’s been treated but proud of the post-Katrina education reform efforts he’d helped institute in Louisiana. He also called on the state to improve oversight of charter schools in a number of specific ways, all of which are desperately needed.

What’s happened here is an outrage, and I’d be saying so even if Folwell weren’t a brother-in-law and friend. But what’s an outraged person to do? Well, this post could be passed all around the social media web, so more people learn of the outrage, so more brains can think about good ways to respond. Also, as of this writing, the comments section under the Times-Picayune story on the firing is still open, and although I hate to attack messengers, the paper has not done its job well in reporting this grotesque firing, failing to push state officials (all the way up to Gov. Bobby Jindal) hard enough for an explanation and then failing to quote any kind of a good-government expert or group as to their thoughts about this obviously unethical retaliation. Of course, an outraged person and his friends might also fill up the email in-boxes and voicemail caches of Gov. Jindal — who keeps riding a reputation of being some kind of Mr. Clean in the swamp — with complaints about the hypocrisy of an administration that claims a reform agenda but cynically punishes the best and brightest of those who are trying to make reform a reality.

But I’m sure you can think of a response that’s even more effective than any of these. You’re smart. You read my blog. Thanks for your help on this.

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Brother in law in the public interest


There’s a strange and still-mysterious scandal in which some number of apparently connected Turkish groups have gotten approval to run charter schools across America, some 120 of them. The unusual nature of the “Turkish school” movment made the big-time news first in Texas, courtesy of the New York Times, which noted that although much of the opposition to the Turkish charters was based on good old-fashioned American xenophobia — the schools tend to employ Turkish teachers — the trend also raised financial questions. Those questions are a bit more prominent now because of an estimable package of stories in the New Orleans Times-Picayune about Turkish charter schools in Louisiana. The package is not just estimable, it has one of my relatives cast in the role of public-service hero, brother-in-law Folwell Dunbar (picture below). Here’s the bottom line from the T-P:

Inci Akpinar, the vice president of a company called Atlas Texas Construction & Trading, sat down with an official from the Louisiana Department of Education a little more than a year ago and made him an offer. As the state official, Folwell Dunbar, recalled in a memo to department colleagues, Akpinar flattered him with “a number of compliments” before getting to the point: “I have twenty-five thousand dollars to fix this problem: twenty thousand for you and five for me.”

At the time, Dunbar was investigating numerous complaints against Abramson Science & Technology Charter School in eastern New Orleans, which shares apparent ties to Akpinar’s firm as well as charter schools in other states run by Turkish immigrants. In fact, state auditors had already turned up startling deficiencies at Abramson. The records they kept of unannounced visits to the campus, as well as interviews with former teachers, paint a chaotic scene: classrooms without instructors for weeks and even months at a time, students who claimed their science fair projects had been done by teachers, a single special-needs instructor for a school of nearly 600.

Dunbar — having declined to take money from Akpinar — recommended more than a year ago that the state board of education yank Abramson’s charter. But the board ultimately stopped short of closing down the school, giving it a year to shape up under a “corrective action plan.”

Folwell also reported the bribe attempt to New Orleans police, and now the state has finally agreed to close the school and investigate. Those who haven’t dealt intimately with government have no idea how hard it is to do the right thing in these types of circumstances. All the peer pressure pushes in the direction of inaction and going and getting along. And let’s not forget, this happened in Lousiana. Ordinarily, because I try not to miss a chance to give Folwell a hard time, I’d make a sardonic brother-in-law joke here. This time, I think I’ll just sit back, read the story again, and be proud.

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How California hates on kids


I don’t know that I’d ever consciously thought it out, but I’ve long felt how difficult/expensive it is to raise kids in California. This University of Southern California analysis (“L.A. Is ‘Ground Zero’ for Shrinking Child Population”) documents the sorry situation. The bottom line:

Los Angeles County is now the epicenter of California’s shrinking population of young children as families are driven away by stressful economic conditions, according to a USC analysis of census data released today. Overall, California lost 220,041 children aged 5 to 9 in the last decade, a decline of 8.1 percent. Los Angeles County lost 21 percent of its children in that age range. “We are ground zero of the ‘missing children’ of California,” said co-author Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demography at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. The loss of children in the region reflects the difficult living conditions for families facing high housing costs followed by high unemployment during the Great Recession, Myers said.

The report is on the mark as far as it goes, but it seems to be missing the education factor. Major California urban areas sponsor a sort of educational apartheid; to put your kids in a public school that isn’t hideous, you need to pay up for housing in a wealthy area of town, or pay up for private school. Everybody who can’t pay up throws his/her kids into a maelstrom of lowest-common-denominator classrooms sprinkled liberally with gang-bangers who scare the hell out of teacher. I’ve seen this first-hand in San Francisco and now, yes, even in Santa Barbara, where my kids go to some of the best schools anywhere, but others living just a few miles away go to schools that are a splendid training ground for life-long failure. (NB: The wonky among you may want to go here to look at a series of analyses of population dynamics recently put out by USC.)

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Need to sell climate change? Advertise, already.


I’ve just finished reading a Q&A in Yale Environment 360 in which an expert contends that our educational system is a significant cause of “green failure,” ie. the inability of society to come to grips with climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Here’s the nut of the argument:

The environment is often seen as a political issue and pushed to the margins of school curricula by administrators and parents, note [Charles] Saylan and Daniel Blumstein, a biology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, in The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It). But at its core, the authors contend, environmental responsibility is a broadly held, nonpartisan value, much like respect for the law. As such, they believe, it deserves a central place in public education, with lessons on the environment permeating every student’s day.

I’m all for better education. I’m sure the co-author being questioned, Saylan, who’s co-founder and executive director of the California-based Ocean Conservation Society, is a smart and decent man. I consider the author/questioner in this piece, Michelle Nijhuis, to be an extraordinarily talented journalist. But the goo-goo argument I just summarized seems, to me, a very unfortunate example of preaching to the choir of environmental true-believers while, simultaneously, playing into the deepest fears conservatives love to spread about environmentalists and liberals. The belief that liberals control the academy and are corrupting our youth by pushing their ideology on them at school is central to the conservative catechism. What environmentalists might see as commonsense and noncontroversial — incorporating environmental responsibility into school curriculums — will be easily and effectively characterized/caricatured by the right as yet more of the leftist, nanny-statist, environmentally extreme social engineering that has killed the economy and saddled the nation with multitrillion-dollar debts and …. blad-dee-dah. Yes, it’s simplistic misleading nonsense, but it’s politically effective nonsense, and it seems that Saylan and his co-author are pitching right into the conservative big-government-is-bad wheelhouse. (I say “seems” because I’m judging from this one interview; I hope to get and read the book and will revise my opinion if necessary.)

By all means let us teach true scientific facts to our schoolkids. But climate change is a clear and present danger — the most serious threat the world faces — and a couple of generations of wrangling over environmental education policy is exactly the wrong way to address it. I don’t claim to possess a lock on wisdom about conveying the climate change message so public attitudes change in the direction of accepting scientific fact and rejecting know-nothing political rhetoric and energy industry obsfucation. But I do believe that the large environmental nonprofits — the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon and others — need to take some of their huge income streams and devote significant chunks of money directly to the task of making climate change uncool and stupid, in the way that cigarette smoking has been made dumb and unhip.

Congress won’t aggressively act on climate change until public attitudes strongly support action. The ability of advertising — funny, smart, hip, multi-platform advertising — to change attitudes, and particularly political attitudes, has been proven, over and over again. Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth did their part to start the climate-change marketing effort. It’s time for the environmental lobby to pull money out of Washington and put it into a major, long-term, brilliant ad campaign focused on the most conceited, mean, greedy and uncool kid in school: Carlyle Dioxide.

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