Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jenks and Union should teach math rather than sue parents

Three weeks ago, I tweeted the following from my @SchoolChoiceOK Twitter account:
Union, Jenks sue parents of special-needs kids Classic rearguard action

Jennifer Carter, chief of staff for state Superintendent Janet Barresi, retweeted it, adding her own colorful comment at the beginning:

Dirtbags @SchoolChoiceOK: Union, Jenks sue parents of special-needs kids Classic rearguard action

In today’s Tulsa World, Kim Archer has a news story on the matter (“Barresi staffer calls Union, Jenks administrators ‘dirtbags’ via Twitter”).

State Superintendent Janet Barresi defended her chief of staff for referring to Union and Jenks administrators as "dirtbags," describing Jennifer Carter's statement on her personal Twitter account as "a poor choice of words."

"While Jennifer's tweet was a poor choice of words, it is morally wrong for superintendents of school districts to sue parents who want nothing more than what's best for their children," Barresi wrote Wednesday in a statement to the Tulsa World. … Barresi said she believes that Oklahomans are "concerned and shocked that any school district would vindictively target the parents of special needs children with a groundless lawsuit."

"These parents' lives are stressful enough without having to deal with a vengeful lawsuit from two superintendents who make more than our governor," she continued.

Barresi said she is "absolutely committed" to defending the rights of parents and expanding their choices.

"We find it revealing," said Jenks Superintendent Kirby Lehman and Union Superintendent Cathy Burden, "that others apparently do not want this issue decided by the courts." That, of course, is false. No one is objecting to the issue being decided by the courts. It’s simply that Jenks and Union sued the wrong people. But, given their incompetence at Pin the Tail on the Defendant, I guess you can’t blame Lehman and Burden for trying to spin it that way. As for the scorn, well, this is what happens when you treat parents like dirt, and Jenks and Union should just get used to it. In his Journal Record column today, law professor Andrew Spiropoulos decried the districts’ vindictive thuggery, and in a press release state Rep. Jason Nelson

said the leaders of the Jenks and Union Public Schools should get used to criticism after targeting the parents of special-needs children with a frivolous lawsuit.

He said criticism is more than warranted in light of the districts’ apparent continued violation of state law and mistreatment of special-needs children.

“Apparently, Jenks and Union officials are shocked that anyone would call them ‘dirtbags’ for persecuting the families of children with special needs,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “I’ve got news for them: Get used to it. Oklahoma citizens will no longer stand by while wealthy school bureaucrats abuse their power.

“I believe these districts continue to violate state law and know their actions are indefensible—which is likely the reason they did not include ‘suing parents’ on any school board agenda,” Nelson said. “I’ve not heard one person defend suing parents outside the administrators of Jenks and Union schools. I’ve visited with numerous people who shudder at the idea of a school district suing parents—especially in this case—and many of them used far more colorful language to express their opinion.”

Several months ago, the Jenks and Union school boards voted to sue the state attorney general to challenge the successful Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program Act. However, they never filed that lawsuit, and instead suddenly sued parents who legally obtained scholarships as a result of the law.

Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships allow a student with a disability (such as Down syndrome or Autism) who has an individualized education program (IEP) to receive state-funded scholarships to attend a private school that parents believe can better serve their child. The scholarships come from the amount of money already designated for the education of those children.

“At the start of September, the amount spent on all students receiving these scholarships statewide was a combined total of $197,345—far less than the combined salaries of the two superintendents at Jenks and Union,” said Nelson, who authored the scholarship law. “When you have school administrators obsessing over a month-old, offhand, one-word Twitter comment instead of working to provide each child a quality education, that suggests the school funds being wasted are those spent on administrators’ fat paychecks and not the pittance spent helping educate children with special needs.”

Rep. Nelson’s video message on the subject is also worth watching, and the World has a follow-up story here. Jennifer Carter has issued a statement here.

I agree with Superintendent Barresi that her staffer’s remark was “a poor choice of words.” Interestingly, however, when we turn to the authoritative lexicographers at Webster’s, we learn that dirtbag is a slang term used in the Army to describe a soldier “whose performance is lacking.” And by international standards, the performance of Jenks and Union is indeed lacking.

Now this will doubtless come as a surprise to Lehman and Burden and all the Jenks and Union folks accustomed to reading their own press releases and assuring themselves that their school districts—among the best in the state—are better than Muskogee and Cement. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for taxpayers, this week saw the release of a new study, “When the Best is Mediocre,” that could kick-start a much-needed discussion.

The study’s findings rest on a new index called the Global Report Card (GRC). According to the authors, “the GRC enables users to compare academic achievement in math and reading between 2004 and 2007 for virtually every public school district in the United States with the average achievement in a set of 25 other countries with developed economies that might be considered our economic peers and sometime competitors” (methodological appendix here).

According to the Global Report Card, the math achievement of the average student in Jenks is at the 41st percentile relative to the international comparison group. The math achievement of the average Union student is at the 40th percentile. In other words, some of Oklahoma’s best districts—districts with admittedly impressive artificial turf—produce students with math performance worse than that of the typical student in the average developed country.

Look at it this way. If you picked up the Jenks school district and plopped it down in Canada, it would be at the 33rd percentile in math achievement. If you placed it in Singapore, the average student would be at the 24th percentile in math achievement.

Same story for Union, which would be in the 32nd percentile if relocated to Canada and the 23rd percentile if relocated to Singapore.

“In short,” the authors say, “many of what we imagine as our best school districts are mediocre compared with the education systems serving students in other developed countries.” The average Jenks or Union student is not keeping pace in math achievement with the average student in other developed countries, “despite the fact that the comparison is to all students in the other countries, some of which have a per-capita gross domestic product that is almost half that of the United States.”

1 comment:

Brandon Dutcher said...

If I were seriously "going for definition #4" would I cite the, umm, "authoritative lexicographers at"? No. Neither one of us think #4 is what she had in mind; I was using it to transition to the poor performance (about which you remain curiously silent). To repeat: If the Jenks school district were relocated to Singapore, the average Jenks student would be at the 24th percentile in math achievement.

Dirtbag was a poor choice of words. The superintendents are not dirtbags; they are human beings created in God's image and thus possessed of inherent dignity. I think we all get that. But what they are doing to parents and to special-needs children is morally offensive, and is MUCH worse than calling someone a dirtbag.

The districts' beef is with the State of Oklahoma, and they know it. Suing parents is gratuitous thuggery.