A series of emails reported by a local Louisiana newspaper detail attempts by state School Superintendent John White to “muddy the waters” in the face of increasing scrutiny about Louisiana’s new school voucher program. The program, set to become one of the largest in the country, could see as many as 380,000 of the state’s students receive government-sponsored vouchers to attend private schools throughout the state.The News-Star obtained a series of emails between White, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s spokesman Kyle Plotkin and Jindal’s policy adviser Stafford Palmieri in which White attempted to counter the growing questions about the oversight of the voucher program. The questions began after the News-Star visited the New Living Word School which has no library and filters lessons through Bible-based DVDs. The Times-Picayune also pointed out that the school would charge voucher students more than the other current students, which is not allowed under the new legislation.
Saying that he was planning on “muddying up the narrative” that media had offered about the school, White’s office, shortly after the story first broke revealed that approved schools would need to undergo further vetting. This additional round of appraisal was not mentioned to the schools, which had already been approved for voucher students, prior to the initial News-Star story.
As reported in the emails, White said that he wanted “to take some air out of the room on the floor and give Steve some cover,” reportedly a reference to Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge), the House education chair and one of the strongest supporters of the voucher legislation. The paper says White believed he could “kill multiple birds with one stone,” as the new round of assessment would allow White and his staff “to talk through the process with the media, muddying up a narrative they’re trying to keep black and white.”
The emails also suggest support for the initial statements that judging the schools’ merits would be “left … up to the parents.” None of the letters the schools received included information on this additional round of consideration, and it was only after the Senate hearing that the state’s website included information on this “due diligence” process.
Condemnations of the reported communications have been swift, with Rep. Marcus Hunter (D-Monroe) calling the emails “high-grade deception.” Sen. Rick Gallot (D-Ruston), meanwhile, said that the administration “is all about transparency for everyone but themselves. … It’s about spinning and winning.”
In response to the release of the emails, White said that there was nothing inappropriate in the communications and that the further vetting had always been planned among the schools receiving larger numbers of voucher students.