Saturday, January 07, 2006

Piedad Robertson's Masterplan for Mediocrity

I found a very interesting and powerful letter written by National Education Association (NEA) president Reg Weaver to Piedad Robertson. The letter is dated June 21, 2005 and addressed to Robertson in her capacity as president of the Education Commission of the States. As we've previously discussed in our blog article "Rats Always Flee a Sinking Ship," Robertson left her position as president of Santa Monica College to work for the ECS about a year ago. Here's the letter in its entirety as found on Kayne's Kastle's blog:

--------------------REG WEAVER'S LETTER TO PIEDAD ROBERTSON-----------

June 20, 2005
Dr. Piedad Robertson
President Education Commission of the States
700 Broadway Suite 1200
Denver, CO 80203-3460

Dear Dr. Robertson,

I cannot adequately express to you the feelings conjured up in me when I learned that the Education Commission of the States has decided to award a Frank Newman award for "excellence" and innovation in education policy to Florida for its voucher and virtual school programs.

This choice is offensive to the 2.7 million members of the National Education Association who toil tirelessly in America’s public schools to ensure that every child receives a quality education. Voucher programs do not improve student achievement, and drain much-needed resources from public schools.

Florida students taking vouchers do not have to take state and federally-mandated tests, thus there is no way to know if these students are achieving at levels greater than the heavily-tested public school students. Schools accepting vouchers do not have to meet state accreditation requirements, hire certified teachers, or conduct criminal background checks on administrators. Further, voucher schools are not required to accept every student who wishes to attend. And ECS is giving an award for excellence?

The Opportunity Scholarship program that you praise has been found unconstitutional by two Florida courts with a Florida Supreme Court decision due soon. The McKay voucher program for special needs children is well-known nationally for its scandals and corruption, not for providing a quality education to Florida students.

Florida’s voucher programs are rife with well-documented scandal, abuse, and fraud. Witness these facts about the Florida programs:

Seven people associated with the Faith Christian Academy in Bartow were arrested for allegedly embezzling more than $200,000 of voucher money.

The Heritage Schools in Miami-Dade County cashed in vouchers for students who had returned to public school. The state of Florida made little attempt to re-coup the funds.

A Tampa Islamic school named in a federal terrorism indictment received $350,000 in tax credit voucher money.

A Boynton home school consultant received McKay voucher money despite the fact she provided no direct services to special needs children.

An Ocala man collected more than $250,000 in voucher money but did not give out even one voucher.

Another McKay voucher-taking school in Jacksonville received funds for 14 special needs students who had returned to public schools. No attempt was made to find out how long the school had taken the money fraudulently.

Florida lawmakers cut funding for Bill Bennett’s for-profit K-12 virtual school after it was discovered he was enrolling ineligible students in his taxpayer-funded program.

And ECS is giving an award for excellence?

There is every reason to believe that this abuse and misuse of taxpayer money will continue. Florida Governor Jeb Bush repeatedly has affirmed his objections to increased state regulation and oversight, and the state legislature failed to pass an accountability bill in its last two sessions.

You could not find a poorer example of "innovation" and "excellence" in education policy. If it is in your power, I would respectfully request that you urge ECS to reconsider this award because of the negative message it would send to all of the hard-working public school employees who strive to provide great public schools for every child.

Reg Weaver


NEA President Reg Weaver Piedad Robertson
From left to right, Reg Weaver and Piedad Robertson.

Here's some background on NEA President Reg Weaver:

Reg Weaver, an outspoken advocate for public education and one of the country’s foremost education leaders, was elected president of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association at NEA's 2002 Representative Assembly in Dallas, Texas. On Sept. 1, 2005, he will begin a second term as head of the nation’s largest professional employee organization.

In his 2005 Representative Assembly keynote address, Weaver announced a historic covenant of shared responsibility for our nation’s public schools. Part of this responsibility, Weaver explained, lies with teachers and other educators who must insist upon the credibility of all of their colleagues. “Assist and support them, but urge their continued growth and commitment to our profession … The credibility of each and every one of us is damaged when one of us is unprofessional, unprepared, or unwilling,” says Weaver.

Weaver, in my humble opinion, is a very honorable and courageous man. Not only does he serve as the watchdog of public education, he has been one of the country's foremost African-American labor leaders. His awards include the National Conference of Black Mayors President's Award, the Ebony Magazine Influential Black Educators Award and the Illinois Education Association's Human Relations Award. He is an honorary life member of the National Parent Teachers Association.

Here's another quote from Reg Weaver on how school vouchers target and deceive minority students:

In many minority communities, primarily, African American and Hispanic, if you ask, are you in favor of vouchers, they may say yes. They don't know that vouchers are a ticket to nowhere. All they know is that they want something for their child.

But these folks have to understand that the condition of public schools is not the fault of the teachers and support staff. It's because, in many instances; they have not been given the support they need in order to be successful.

We have to make sure they know exactly what needs to be done, what we're doing, and what we have to do together. Then, when our opponents come to them, they'll say, we don't need you. We've got the NEA.

And here's one of Weaver's noble ideas for education reform:

Number two is meaningful education reform created by those of us responsible for its success. Too many times, people want to dump things on us without ever asking us whether or not it's going to work. We get told to jump on every fad that comes about. New math, old math. School with walls, school without walls. You name it, it's there.

I think Weaver has hit the nail on the head. When Piedad Robertson came to Santa Monica College, she brought in her friend Winniphred Stone who eventually focused on pumping up distance education with Real Education (now eCollege), the new kid on the block, as online education was seen as the new gizmo to bridge the Digital Divide between those who could afford an education and those who could not. It was seen as a way to pump up dwindling enrollment by reaching a greater paying audience. However, as Weaver would most certainly agree, any course of study in higher education is only as good as the teachers and students behind them. Technology is merely a tool, it can be abused or applied, but it cannot replace sound teaching.

Robertson also brought in her husband and wife team, David and Katharine Muller. Katharine Muller would become dean of external affairs, focusing her energies on creating the Academy of Entertainment and Technology (AET). Remember that in 1997, when AET was created, this was at the height of the craze, a time when companies milked investors with infinite undeliverable promises and eventually vanished from cyberspace. Technology was little understood at this time, yet its glimmer and dazzle would secure much needed district, state, and federal funds. Also at this time, Sony's PlayStation hit the U.S. video game market full force with its new gaming technology that incorporated the use of CD-ROMs and interactive media.

Of course part of this plan by Robertson was to tie it all into a neat little package by incorporating charter schools and hence, under the direction of Winniphred Stone and Julie Yarrish, the Launchpad program was born. Notice how many high schools committed themselves in letters that were attached to the California Postsecondary Education Commission's 1997 AET review. A letter from Venice High School, dated November 7, 1996, was addressed to "Bill Shade," Vice-President of Planning and Development for SMC. Similar letters from Hollywood High School Career Academy and Palisades Charter High School were also addressed to Shade. The remaining charter school letters were addressed to Piedad Robertson and Rocky Young. (See CPEC Appendix D).

Also, notice the overwhelming amount of grant money that was obtained for the Launchpad Middle School programs. But I will save all of this for another day. What is important is that William Shade worked under Robertson at Santa Monica College and he left with her to work at the ECS as Chief of Staff. Here's Shade's ECS biography:

William L. Shade joined ECS as chief of staff in February 2005. He oversees ECS operations and coordinates the activity of all ECS departments. Shade has executive-level experience in government, higher education and the private sector. This includes service on the staffs of Governor Bob Graham of Florida and the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and as vice chancellor for public affairs of the State University System of Florida, vice president for planning and development of Santa Monica College, and manager of external relations of the Florida Power and Light Company. He also has taught political science and public administration at Florida State University, Southern Illinois University and the University of Scranton.

As we've mentioned previously, Stone works for the ECS as Vice President of Planning and Development. Here's her ECS biography:

Winniphred Stone joined the ECS staff in September 2005, bringing a diverse background in fund-raising and development, technology, higher education policy, and labor and business partnerships. She served as associate dean for distance education at Santa Monica College (SMC), where she created the Distance Education Program and administered the SMC Virtual Campus. Previously she was associate dean for business and industry at SMC, and senior policy analyst in the Executive Office of Education in Massachusetts. Stone holds bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

And here's a brief biography on Piedad Robertson taken from University Business:

Take Piedad Robertson, recently elected president and CEO of the influential Education Commission of the States in Denver. A comrade and later adversary of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution, Robertson rose through the ranks, both political and collegial, first to senior vice president of one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the nation, Miami Dade College, then to the presidency of Boston's Bunker Hill Community College, and impressively next on to become the first secretary of education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Thereafter, she went on to serve as president and CEO of Santa Monica College (Calif.) and as a high-ranking member of the California governor's higher ed kitchen cabinet.

At one moment, Robertson could be hosting the president of the Getty Foundation--and, of course, Governor and Mrs. Schwarzenegger--and the next moment throwing down Jack Daniels with former Gov. Bill Weld and the boys in the national Republican Party leadership--a fairly amazing story given that she was once heralded as the next great Democratic comer in Florida state politics.

Is it any wonder that Reg Weaver would question Robertson's praise on the Florida Voucher and Virtual School programs with Shade and Stone by her side? And keep in mind the following bit of evidence from Weaver's letter to Robertson: "The Heritage Schools in Miami-Dade County cashed in vouchers for students who had returned to public school. The state of Florida made little attempt to re-coup the funds."

With Shade in various governmental positions in Florida while Piedad Robertson and Katharine Muller worked for Miami-Dade Community College, it is easy to see how no one would want to attempt to stir up the hornet's nest and re-coup these lost funds... especially since the FBI along with a public corruption task force performed a search on or about April 2003 at the Miami-Dade County's teachers' union headquarters. "According to the FBI, they served a sealed search warrant on the United Teachers of Dade headquarters." You can view the December 18, 2002 FBI Affidavit in support of search and seizure warrant for officers of the Washington Teachers Union and others HERE.

This was not the only fraud scheme to hit Miami-Dade's education system. According to a Department of Justice press release for August 10, 2005, David Lee Ellisor, was sentenced to eighty seven (87) months in prison on mail fraud charges based on his "Christmas From Around the World" fictitious event that defrauded approximately 2700 Miami-Dade County elementary school children in December 2003. Here's a brief excerpt from the fraud scheme taken from the White Collar Crime Prof Blog:

[T]he evidence presented at trial and during the sentencing hearing, Ellisor targeted students and teachers at Miami-Dade County public and private schools for a "once in a lifetime" Christmas show at the Coconut Grove Convention Center. Ellisor promised that the event would be attended by Ambassadors from over 28 countries, and promised that students attending the event would receive raffle tickets to win "thousands of dollars of sponsored gifts." Over 2,700 victims, from 22 Miami-area schools, paid the $10 per person fee demanded by Ellisor, and made arrangements to attend the event, supposedly scheduled for December 3-5, 2003. Local businesses also provided money to Ellisor based upon his promises about the event. When the first group of students arrived at the Convention Center on the morning of December 3, they found the building locked, with no information about the event, and Ellisor nowhere to be found.

Ellisor spent the morning of December 3 emptying the show's bank account of over $4,000 and using some of that money to complete the purchase of a Jaguar automobile. Ellisor collected thousands of dollars in fees for the event, but did not meet the requirements to stage an event at the Convention Center. Instead, he used the money for personal expenses such as a hotel suite, luxury rental cars, special-order clothing, and a watch whose value he estimated at $5000. The Court found at sentencing that Ellisor had in the past failed to provide refunds for non-existent shows targeted toward children at various locations throughout the United States.

One must also keep in mind Robertson's long history of charter school scheming. On or about 1991, Piedad Robertson becomes Secretary of Education for the State of Massachusetts. Here's a brief history of the State of Massachusetts education woes taken from the Campus Chronicle:

January 1991: Where's the fat?
The Tsongas task force refutes charges of waste and administrative "fat" in public higher education and calls for greater autonomy. The panel finds "no substantive evidence to support the claim that public higher education is top heavy with overpaid employees." Citing national data, the task force says Massachusetts is more faculty intensive and less staff intensive than other systems in the U.S. The panel recommends that public higher education be exempt from "routine and arbitrary" state regulations and that the regents chair be elected by the board and not appointed by the governor. The report suggests some regionalization of administrative and facilities maintenance among schools and broader use of computers and technology and shared faculty appointments.

January 1991: On the block
Weld takes office and immediately calls for creating a secretary of education and eliminating the regents. Among his key advisors is Stephen Tocco. A Northeastern University law professor on Weld's transition team floats a plan to close Mass. Maritime, Worcester State, Massachusetts Bay Community College and North Shore Community College. The plan also weighs closing Salem State and merging SMU and the University of Lowell with UMass.

February 1991: Bromery quits in protest of cuts. Paul Marks is named interim chancellor.

March 1991: What can we close?
Weld creates an 11-member commission to study the closing of colleges with the goal of saving $74 million. Duffey announces he will leave UMass to become president of American University. Weld fails to file the pay raise legislation, forcing the unions to renegotiate. Tsongas blasts Weld's plan to scrap the regents. Duffey calls Weld's proposal a "masterplan for mediocrity." The trustees authorize Duffey to push a bill merging the three universities, a plan backed by the SMU trustees.

July 1991: Give'em HECC
Weld signs UMass merger legislation and appoints Bunker Hill Community College's Piedad Robertson as secretary of education. The Board of Regents is replaced by an 11-member Higher Education Coordinating Council (HECC). The UMass Board of Trustees is reconfigured to 19 voting members, three non-voting students and Robertson as an ex officio member.

January 1996: Weld announces plan to eliminate secretary of education and replacing HECC with a board of higher education. The new board will be authorized to eliminate duplicate programs, he says, forcing colleges and UMass to operate with "efficiency and unity."

So, Robertson comes in under Weld as Secretary of Education in Massachusetts and when she leaves, the position, which she only held, is eliminated. While employed as Secretary of Education, Robertson establishes approximately 25 charter schools with the help of then governor William Weld. Charter schools are a perfect vehicle for Robertson's maneuverings as they have far less accountability on federal and state levels. Additionally, they can obtain vouchers as well as corporate dollars. Robertson ties in corporate sponsors and runs her alleged scheme with a skeleton crew of handpicked individuals. When the state claimed that the charter schools are in violation of the state's constitution around 1995, Robertson receives a vote of no-confidence and subsequently departs for Santa Monica College. Stone eventually leaves her position in the Executive Office of Education in Massachusetts to follow Robertson to Santa Monica College.

At SMC, the charter school model finds its home in the Academy of Entertainment and Technology. Non-Profit Foundations? Gifts, grants, and donations? Public policy Issues? Foundation budgets? Board of Trustee control over curriculum, student policies, budget, and hiring and firing of faculty and staff? Sounds like the same old thing from Massachusetts repackaged in California. Is it any wonder a second vote of no-confidence was in Robertson's future at SMC and that she would leave to take over the ECS?

And now, Robertson becomes the Ex officio member of the Governor's Commission of the Arts in Education: Education Commission of the States 2004-06 Chairman’s Initiative – The Arts – A Lifetime of Learning. Is it any surprise that two of the members under Robertson include Joan Abrahamson of the Jefferson Institute and Dale Franzen who is the director of the Santa Monica College Madison Project? Both Franzen and Abrahamson were both appointed program directors of the Academy of Entertainment & Technology. Both women continue to serve on the AET Advisory Board. Has Robertson lost her hold on SMC or is she merely keeping her old allies close at hand? Even AET Dean Katharine Muller has made a little visit to the ECS on or about July 13, 2005 along with SMC Vice President of Student Affairs Robert Adams.

Anyway, what goes around, comes around. Robertson receives a vote of no-confidence in Massachusetts and in California. Now, the ECS is under scrutiny by the NEA. Hopefully, courageous advocates like Reg Weaver will continue to fight for our educational rights and accountability for our tax dollars. Our lives depend on him.

-- Des Manttari,
Phoenix Genesis

(c) 2006: Phoenix Genesis/MBS LP

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