FINALLY, Someone In The Media Pays Attention To Supriya Jindal’s Whiteboard Project

A few months ago, the left-wing attack-dog outfit Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) assailed Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal as corrupt over his wife Supriya Jindal’s philanthropic effort to put high-tech whiteboards in public-school classrooms throughout the state.

CREW said, with no proof whatsoever, that corporate types and other high-dollar potential donors restricted to $5,000 in campaign contributions to Jindal would look to the First Lady’s charity as another opportunity to buy access. It pointed to the fact that Allee Bautsch, Jindal’s chief fundraiser, is helping in the charity effort and that some of the corporate givers to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children might stand to benefit from favorable regulatory action by the governor.

And no sooner did CREW’s allegations surface but the New York Times’ Eric Lipton regurgitated them in an incendiary piece which smeared Jindal, the First Lady and the participants in the whiteboard program…

Several of the charity’s major donors are large state contractors, like Acadian Ambulance, or D&J Construction, which alone has received $67.6 million in contracts since 2009, mostly for highways, said a separate report on the foundation being issued this week by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Both companies have pledged at least $10,000 to the foundation.

Ethics watchdog groups say the contributions are no accident.

“The motives might be good,” said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which has also examined public records detailing the operations of Mrs. Jindal’s charity. “But the donations that come in to charities like this are almost always from folks who want something from a politician. It is a troubling phenomenon.”

When we noticed the smear, we asked what we thought was a very basic question – how come there was no attempt made by Mr. Lipton or anyone else at the New York Times to verify whether the whiteboards worked, whether they actually helped to educate kids on math and science as they’re intended, whether they got a lot of use, etc. We wondered whether there would be a quote forthcoming from the Times from parents, teachers or pupils at the schools affected by the First Lady’s techno-generosity.

Naturally, the answer was no.

Worse, when the Baton Rouge Advocate and New Orleans Times-Picayune picked up the story from the New York Times, they did no better journalism. CREW’s allegations were repeated uncritically and no effort was made to assess whether the whiteboards were a good idea.

That was in March. Today we ran across a Louisiana newspaper which finally decided to provide some balance by reporting on the whiteboard project.

It was more like a pep rally than a visit by the state’s first lady at Leonville Elementary School on Monday.

Hundreds of students greeted Supriya Jindal with wild cheers and much waving of flags as she arrived to officially dedicate eight new electronic whiteboards — interactive, computerized replacements for traditional blackboards — for all the school’s first- and second-grade classes.

Jindal said the technology has the potential to transform the way students learn.

“A study recently released shows a 17 to 29 percentile gain in academic achievement in classrooms with such systems versus classrooms without,” Jindal said.

While the formal unveiling was Monday, Principal Toni Breaux said the whiteboards actually were installed earlier this year and are already at work in the classrooms.

“They are working out beautifully. The kids love them,” Breaux said. “This gives us a chance to compete against what they are used to already.”

The new whiteboards are a cross between a computer and a traditional blackboard.

Teachers can write on the boards, using a special electronic pen instead of chalk.

But they can also download lessons and instructional material from the Internet that can then be displayed on the boards for the entire class to see.

“It is very interactive. The students have electronic clickers that they can use to answer questions and take part in the lessons,” Breaux said. “It is really generating a lot of student interaction.”

Kudos to the Opelousas Daily World for finally giving us some reporting on whether the whiteboards are useful.

Something else interesting in the Daily World article was its treatment of the company which donated $40,000 to put the whiteboards in the classroom at Leonville Elementary. Lipton’s New York Times piece made Alon USA out to be a rapacious polluter seeking to buy indulgences from the governor…

Alon USA, an Israeli oil company that has pledged $250,000 to the Jindal Foundation, last year sought permit changes that would allow it to discharge more pollutants at its Krotz Springs refinery. In 2009, state environmental officials also eased requirements for the company to check for spills of oil, ammonia or other contaminants in waterways to twice a month, instead of twice a week, records show.

Jeff Morris, Alon USA’s president, said his company expected no special favors in return for its contributions to the Jindal Foundation or other charities. “I can understand how people might be concerned, when you have a congressman or others who have their own charities,” he said. “But that is not the case here. It is apparent that the children of Louisiana have been blessed by Supriya’s involvement.”

A bit closer to the ground, though, things appear different.

The donation of the whiteboards was made possible by a partnership between the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children and the Alon Refinery in Krotz Springs, which paid for the roughly $40,000 worth of equipment.

Bill Wuensche, head of the refinery, said this was his company’s third such donation, which started out with Krotz Spring Elementary School and Arnaudville Elementary last year.

“This is a big deal for many reasons,” Wuensche said. “This is a doorway for lessons from all over the world. They can explain things in a way that no chalk board could do.”

He said Alon has so far donated 20 whiteboards to area schools “and we are not done yet.”

“These will eventually be used in classrooms all across the country,” Jindal predicted. “Louisiana is ahead of the curve.”

The gift from Alon also covered the cost of a speaker system, an interactive response system, all installation and the cost of training the teachers to make maximum use of the new technology.

The fact is, everyone benefits from the project to put whiteboards in those classrooms. It would be a good investment if the state or local school boards were to put forth funds to install them in every classroom in the state, but at $5,000 per unit the cost would be prohibitive. The Jindals are doing the next best thing – getting a buy-in from the larger employers in the state, who depend on finding local talent with the capability to handle math and science in the workplace, in order to staff chemical plants and refineries and so forth, and quite often placing the whiteboards in neighborhood schools around those facilities. Most of those schools are poor and black, meaning the political advantage to the governor out of the program is negligible.

But none of that is important to the Times, or – unfortunately – the state’s two largest newspapers. The sizzle of a scurrillous allegation of corruption is much more sellable than the steak of a good project being worked for the benefit of the state’s kids.

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