By C.C. Campbell-Rock
Kira Orange Jones is running for a third term on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education-District 2 seat, which she has held for the past eight years. BESE District 2 encompasses Orleans, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, and the majority of Assumption Parishes. Two other candidates are vying for the seat, Shawon Bernard, an attorney with a 25-year career in education and Ashonta Wyatt, Ph.D., an adjunct professor at Southern University with nearly 18 years as an educator. Both are native New Orleanians.
Kira Orange Jones brought far less education experience to the BESE than her opponents will bring. A native of the Bronx in New York, Jones attended elite private schools and taught fourth grade in Baton Rouge for two years, as a Teach for America recruit, before dabbling in filmmaking and leaving during Katrina. She earned a master’s in school leadership Harvard University, before returning to Louisiana as an executive with Teach for America. Being a former executive director with Teach for America, a recruitment firm, is not the same as directly serving children and parents in the classroom and on a grassroots level.
Look behind the curtain, as Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz, and you’ll find that the projection of Kira Orange Jones’ image, as an esteemed educator and administrator, is a construct of billionaires, millionaires, and political operatives, who are gorging themselves on taxpayers’ money reserved for public education. Many of her contributors helped to create the Recovery School District, in which hundreds of millions of public-school funds went into charter schools run by organizations with no oversight or accountability.
Insurance company millionaire Leslie Jacobs, a former Orleans Parish School Board member and BESE member, laid the groundwork for the charters in 2000 by supporting a bogus high-stakes testing system based on homemade tests with a curriculum that didn’t match the textbooks or the tests. She dubbed herself the ‘architect of accountability.” When the children failed and Hurricane Katrina flooded the black communities of New Orleans, Jacobs seized the opportunity to force a state takeover of the public school system. Today she runs an outfit called Educate Now! Interestingly, none of Jacobs’ children ever attended public schools. Jacobs has been loyal contributor to Jones’ campaign since she first ran.
In fact, Jacobs brother, Stephen Rosenthal is also a contributor, as is his wife, Sandra. Rosenthal is owner and CEO of Strategic Comp, a worker’s compensation insurer. He was a founding board member with New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) and served as Board President of the New Orleans Charter Middle School and S. J. Green Charter School. He is also a founding board member of KIPP New Orleans.
One of Jones’ most ardent supporters is Tulane University Professor Walter Isaacson, who is also the chair emeritus of Teach for America and a big proponent of charter schools. Surely, Isaacson, the former editor of Time Magazine, had something to do with Jones being selected by TIME in 2015, as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. “Kira Orange Jones, a Bronx native, was one of the critical engines of innovation. As Teach for America’s executive director in New Orleans, she attracted educators from across the U.S…To preserve the reforms (charter school system), she ran for Louisiana’s board of education and upset an entrenched incumbent. The public-charter-choice model has been a success…,” Isaacson wrote in Time Magazine.
Isaacson appears to have been a central figure in ushering in the all-charter school district in New Orleans. In his 2007 TIME Magazine article, “The Greatest Education Lab,” Isaacson gushes on about the visionary ideas of Paul Vallas and Sarah Usdin.
Usdin, a former director of Teach for America and a Jones’ contributor, is the founder of New Schools for New Orleans, for which Isaacson is a board member as well as Stephen Rosenthal. After teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, Usdin joined Teach For America and taught 5th grade for three years in Baton Rouge before becoming Teach for America’s Executive Director in Louisiana. www.lra.louisiana.gov/index.cfm/assets/assets/docs/Video/
“Vallas …was persuaded to leave Philadelphia and take over the New Orleans’ Recovery School District by the state’s new reform-minded superintendent of education, Paul Pastorek, and by Senator Mary Landrieu, long a proponent of choice and charter schools. They want to give leaders their own schools, give the parents a choice and let the state funding follow the pupils to whatever schools the parents choose. It’s a voucher system in all but name that blows up the monopoly of a traditional school district. In the process, they have attracted the best school operators from around the nation to show what they can do, ranging from national nonprofit charter networks such as KIPP schools to for-profit companies like Edison Schools”
Isaacson quoted Paul Vallas, “Call it the silver lining: Hurricane Katrina washed away what was one of the nation’s worst school systems and opened the path for energetic reformers who want to make New Orleans a laboratory of new ideas for urban schools.”
Among Jones’ other contributors is charter school proponents, former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, political consultant James Carville, former Mayor Mitchell Landrieu, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and Robert S. Boh, of Boh Brothers Construction to name a few of the contributors on Jones’ 25-page contributors list.
In 2012, Jones faced a challenge to her seat because BESE contracts services from Teach for America. She held onto the seat when the state’s Board of Ethics found that the job did not amount to a conflict of interest, if she recused herself from voting on TFA contracts.
In 2011 and again in 2015, Isaacson, Jones’ mentor and contributor, Jacobs, and their elite clique, joined together to put Jones and others on the BESE, so they could create policies to continue to flip public school dollars to private charter entities, both for-profit and non-profit entities.
They have created is a plantation-esque system, an experiment that has gone horribly wrong, that only puts dollars in the pockets of the charter operators. Their charters are failing to make the grade, the children are graduating with a valueless education, they’ve kicked physical education and art out in favor of testing, there’s virtually no vo-tech education, and some children, as was the case at Kennedy High School, can’t even graduate.
In the middle of it all is Kira Orange Jones. What has she accomplished in the past eight years, other than being a puppet for the elites? She certainly isn’t carrying out the wishes of the voters in Orleans Parish, who want the elected school board, New Orleans Public Schools (formerly the Orleans Parish School Board) to exercise oversight and hold charter schools accountable.
According to news reports, on the afternoon she qualified Jones had to go before the State Board of Ethics “to address about $8,800 in fines and fees — for failing to file personal financial disclosures and campaign finance reports by their due dates.”
Jones, herself, hasn’t been the best overseer of the “minimum” education that Louisiana’s children are entitled to by law. Mercedes Schneider, an author and education blogger published a letter from Laura Reiff, a parent who tracked Jones’ attendance at BESE meetings from 2016-2019 and found that Jones missed 38% of the meetings, or 46 out of the 121. Reiff also tracked Jones’s attendance on the BESE’s School Innovation and Turnaround Committee, which she chairs. “Out of the 13 meetings as the chair, she was absent 8 times including the time she was first scheduled to serve as chairperson. She is absent for this committee meeting 62 percent of the time.” The site also questioned Jones’ residency, noting that her husband was a New Mexico resident and state documents have offered at least two different addresses for Jones. https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2019/08/11/la-beses-kira-orange-jones-shifting-residency-missing-ethics-filings-and-profound-meeting-absences/
A former employee who claimed to have worked at Teach for America full-time commented on the pros and cons of the organization: Pros: “Great cause and education advocates helping enhance the systems, but not enough and not good pay. Can’t support yourself.” Cons: “Kira Orange Jones is the most horrific human on planet earth. She struts around on her high horse, treating everyone below her like dirt. She’s condescending, demeaning, and rude. I would like working there if she wasn’t a part of Teach for America at all. Dealing with her and her bad attitude often ruined my days as someone who wants to make a difference in education.” https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Employee-Review-Teach-for-America-RVW10676153.htm
Jones’ challengers say they want to see the local board control the charters and that educators should make educational decisions that impact children, among other priorities. The New Orleans Tribune Facebook page has Trib Talk-Political Edition videos of the candidates, explaining their positions. https://www.facebook.com/theneworleanstribune. The upcoming print edition also lays out their positions.
Kira Orange Jones did not accept the N.O.Tribune’s invitation to appear on Trib Talk or submit a questionnaire about her priorities. Jones’ website is more about herself and less about the constituents she serves. She listed her priorities as “seeking more resources and support for teachers and schools, improving academics and college and career readiness.” She did not advocate for local control of the schools by the elected school board.
Judging from the company she keeps, her supporters and contributors, Kira Orange Jones is just another politician who wants to stay in power.