Saturday, March 31, 2007

Op-Ed: Nation Watching Our Education Lab

I wrote another op-ed piece in the Times-Picayune. It's about education in New Orleans and charter schools.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Faking Katrina Destruction Courtesy of K-Ville Stresses Me Out

Right now there are about 50 carnies, I mean movie people, outside working hard to make my house and all of my neighborhood look like crap. It's all because of television. My neighbor Mike's house was chosen to be the fictional home for the main character in a TV pilot called K-Ville. Our house, or more accurately our porch, is being used to be the porch of Kaja, the neighbor who puts her home up for sale. We were paid $2000 for them to use our porch, so that officially makes me a publicity whore. But you knew that already, as I blog. As I speak they are painting a fake flood line on my house, and piling up cars and fridges and all kinds of debris in my front yard. This is all much more psychologically difficult than I thought it would be. It's as if the flood lines, the flooded cars, and the scenes of debris have become sacred memories in my mind. I helped dump many of my neighbor's stinky refrigerators, and scrub off the flood lines. I saw many dead bodies in the flood waters, and I saw suffering I will never be able to adequately express. Now these images are back, but in a fake Hollywood style. It's obvious to me today, seeing all this fake Katrina set, that I have many deep residual issues about my Katrina experience that will stay with me forever.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Perpetual V.A. Drugs

I received a bill yesterday for meds issued for my father from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was given codeine, loratadine, and cabidopa. But the transactions took place after his death. I called the number and asked that they stop charging my father for these drugs. They said I was not listed on the account so I couldn't make these requested changes. I asked if it would help if I sent in another certificate of death, and they said they wouldn't open mail from me because I am not listed on the account. It looks like the only way to get these meds stopped is to bring my dad back to life, have him call the V.A. to stop the meds, and then he can go back to resting in peace.

I'll bet if I started selling these drugs on EBay the V.A. would stop sending them.

Later Note: My brother Jim was able to speak to someone at the VA who informed him "off the record" that we didn't need to pay the bill and the drugs should stop coming in a month or two. Moreover, the VA knows my dad is dead, at least they do "off the record."

Friday, March 23, 2007

Volunteering at a Public School

Today was my first "official" day of volunteering at John Dibert Elementary, a public school run by the Recovery School District in my Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans. I plan on spending my Friday afternoons helping out and interacting with the students. The screening process to get clearance is pretty rigid, and involves finger printing, drug tests, and thorough background checks, all from different offices. So while I'm not yet cleared to work one-on-one with students, and won't be for months I'm told as the process is lengthy, I was able to move some books around and meet many of the teachers and students. I think I am going to learn an awful lot about public education in New Orleans by working there.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

One Way Charter Schools Improve LEAP Scores

The principal at my local Recovery School District (RSD) school told me that over the past two weeks before the LEAP test (a standardized test in Louisiana), he had a dozen students who all told a sad but similar story. They were enrolled at various charter schools, and had behavioral problems and/or learning difficulties. The charter school told the parent(s) their children would be expelled, and they would not be able to attend school until the following Fall. But if the parents withdrew the student voluntarily, an RSD school would have to take them. That way the charter school wouldn't be brought down by the poor LEAP test scores, and the disruptions in class would be eliminated. This is illegal, let alone immoral. Now there are some classes at my local RSD school with 33 kids, one teacher, and several students with behavioral and learning problems. Not a very good learning environment to put it mildly. The gap between the haves and have nots in New Orleans is widening.

Later note: the principal just informed me that the number of students with this story was lower than he first thought, and that "a dozen" in the above post should more accurately say "a few." I heard from people in Washington D.C., which has the second highest number of charter schools (New Orleans is first), that this withdraw or face expulsion ploy, is common in DC also. Moreover, the charter schools keep the funding for the rest of the year for the student who withdrew.

Monday, March 19, 2007

LEAP Test and Charter Schools: A Prediction

This week across Louisiana, students in the 4th and 8th grades will be taking the LEAP test. It's a controversial standardized test that covers four areas: English, math, science, and social studies. Students must score "basic" on English or math, and they need to "approach basic" on all other sections to pass. If not, they have to take summer school and pass the exam before being allowed to advance. You can see a practice version of the test here. While students in Louisiana took the LEAP test the previous school year, BESE allowed each district to decide whether or not they wanted the test count due to the problems associated with Katrina. This year the scores count for everyone. I remember when my daughter was in the 4th grade. The entire school year was in preparation for the week of the LEAP exam. After the students took the high-stakes test, the rest of the year was spent watching movies and playing games.

As New Orleans has become the testing ground for charter schools, people will be watching these test results closely. Earlier in 2003, the Department of Education studied 6000 4th grade students and found that children in charter schools performed worse in both math and reading. Following a New York Times article about the lower test scores in charter schools, Secretary of Education Rod Paige issued a statement against the findings. It is no secret that Bush and his administration are fond of the charter school model. It puts the schools in the hands of for-profit private companies and reduces government.

I predict that the charter schools in New Orleans will score better than the other public schools, and people will argue that nationwide we ought to privatize all of our schools. But the test scores in Louisiana won't tell the whole story. Many charter schools do not accept special education children. Charter schools hire only certified teachers, while the public schools are often forced to hire non-certified teachers due to the teacher shortage. Plus, some charter schools only accept "gifted" children, or they take students who score the highest on tests, such as Lusher, where my children attend. So now I'm going to sit back and wait for the test scores to come out, and then point back to this posting as evidence to my prophetic abilities.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

FEMA Trailer Trash No Mo'

We came home from the St. Patrick's Day parade to find that our FEMA trailer was gone.
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We received our gift from FEMA in September of 06 after waiting for more than a year. They came to take it just three days after we called. First they inspected it for termites, and then they halled it away while we were drunk on green beer and cheering for green beads. I have some fond memories of the FEMA trailer. Our kids were sure excited when it arrived. It was like a club house for them, and all the stuff that was smaller seemed to work great for people the size of a kid. I remember watching several Saints games in there as well, so the FEMA trailer added to the mystique of the 06 season. But our marriage didn't do well in a FEMA trailer with two kids and two dogs. So we are in the process of buying a double one block away. We will live downstairs, and rent out the top. Then when our house if renovated, we'll move back, and rent out both sides. It will be difficult to pull off financially, but we're sort of investing in the future of New Orleans, much like Jeremiah did when he purchased land while the future of Jerusalem was questionable (Jeremiah 32).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Charter Schools and New Orleans

We're experimenting with our kids down here in post-Katrina New Orleans. Before Katrina, we had 120 public schools. They were pretty lousy for the most part. Now 56 public schools are open. The local school board runs five of them, the state runs 20, and 31 of these schools are run by private for-profit charter groups. Nine more private groups received charters and will open in the Fall of 2007, bringing the total to 40. People are watching this experiment closely, as the idea of outsourcing the education of our kids to a for-profit-company funded with public dollars is a new idea. Some, such as President Bush, want it to succeed, others want it to fail.

Personally I'm bipolar in regards to this issue. Before Katrina, when Lusher Elementary (the school where my children attend and my wife teaches) decided to become a charter school, I was against it, because I thought it was racist. I wrote about this just four days before Katrina. My world was certainly simpler then. Following Katrina, many politicians saw charter schools as the answer to get quality schools open. Several teachers and community activists claimed that charter schools were unproven academically, and they pitted schools against one another to compete for funds instead of cooperating. The Recovery School District, which was formed in 2003 to take over any Louisiana schools that were academically unacceptible, now was given an incredible amount of power. They, along with their supervisors at BESE, were charged with overseeing the process by which groups received charters and temporarily running the schools until they were chartered. During the special legislative session in the Fall of 2005, the RSD pledged that it "is committed to developing a strong model of parental and community collaboration" and "The RSD is committed to ensuring transparency regarding its processes and practices and accountability (at all levels)." But sadly, none of this has happened. At least in my community, there is no collaboration and no transparency. None. Several of us are trying to have a say in how our schools are operated, but we get no answers. This process has illustrated to me first hand how the country looks down on Lousiana, and how Louisiana looks down on New Orleans.

I was part of a group from the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization who tried to charter a school in our neighborhood. First in the Spring of 2006 we applied for Dibert Elementary. Our application, as were all applications, was reviewed by a company from Chicago called NACSA (National Association of Charter School Authorizers). The BESE board then acts as a rubber stamp, doing whatever NACSA recommends. We were given provisional approval by NACSA, and told we could have Dibert if we improved a few small things in our application. But then they opened Dibert as an RSD school, and they later told us our revised application was denied. We were shocked, and asked for the rubrics used to deny our application, and in reading them over it seemed they didn't understand how a neighborhood group like MCNO, which does so much, would govern a school. So I formed a separate non-profit corporation, called Mid-City Charter Schools, and our sole purpose was to govern a school in Mid-City. We applied again with a much stronger application. Our interview with NACSA went great. We had a fantastic board. But we recently heard that our application was denied again. We've heard through the grapevine that NACSA is only giving charters to groups who partner with national education companies that have political and financial ties to NACSA. We partnered with a local company called Education Design Management because they were great and local. They understand how the arts are such an important part to the culture of New Orleans. They had over 300 years of experience in education, and their education director had opened and run the first charter school in Louisiana. But only non-Louisiana education management companies get charters, and no neighborhood groups using Louisiana based management companies are trusted to run a school. It seems companies from Houston and Chicago know more about schools in Louisiana. And again, so many companies are profiting from Katrina, it's just they seem to be from other places.

So here we are now, with the RSD running the only public elementary school in our neighborhood, and not running it well. Even the mayor's office was unable to navigate the RSD bureacracy and hold a meeting at Dibert Elementary. I am going to start volunteering Friday afternoons at Dibert to see firsthand what is going on, and to try to have a better idea about how to help our children learn.

But there is a common perception that with charter schools, the people in the school neighborhood will have a louder voice in how the school is run. That has not been the case here in New Orleans.

Monday, March 12, 2007

70% and 100% Increases in Allstate Homeowners

We received our new Allstate homeowner's policy in the mail today. We have our house insured for $150,000. In 2005 our homeowner's cost $1264.00. In 2006 it cost $1491.00. Now it will cost $2525.22 for 2007. That is a 70% increase since 2006, and a 100% increase since pre-Katrina in 2005. We're doing some major renovations on our house, and so we're not liable to find another carrier until completion. We're elevating our house to above the Katrina flood water level, so that will automatically cancel our Allstate policy I've heard as we'll be above 4 feet. Someday, I am very much looking forward to never writing a check to Allstate Insurance again. I wouldn't mind the increases if I thought it was really insurance, in that they would pay you fairly if your home was damaged.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Why God Destroyed Senator Lott's Home

I've been reflecting quite a bit the past two days about my experiences in Washington D.C. last Wednesday. I'm a big fan of the ritual and ceremony that accompanies politics, so for me, I was like a kid in a candy store. I even took this Senate Coaster after asking Mary Landrieu if it would be OK.
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But I didn't drink the kool-aid like Rockey "FEMA Trailer" Vaccarella did, I'm proud to say. Instead, I spoke from my heart and gave them the straight story about living in New Orleans after being screwed by Allstate. Everyone I met in D.C. seemed very smart. They're the kind of people who return emails seconds later, no matter what time or day you contact them. I was especially impressed with the people who work as the support staff for politicians, people like Kevin Avery and Hayne Rainey who work for Mary Landrieu, and Noushin Jahanian who works for the American Association for Justice. During the session, Senator Trent Lott explained that God chose to destroy his house so that he could better serve the people of Mississippi. I found that idea to be very interesting. I'll bet that David Vitter would represent me better if he and his family lived in a FEMA trailer. Trent Lott has a history of working for the insurance industry, and now after Katrina destroyed his home and Statefarm denied his claim, he's their worst nightmare. Several people told me that he is the primary reason that legislation regarding insurance reform will likely pass this congress. It reminds me of stories about religious leaders like Buddha and Moses leaving the palace and seeing suffering going on, and then doing something to bring about change.

On a positive note, Mary Landrieu and others are working hard so that we could not only keep our Road Home funds, but get our SBA loan reinstated. That would really help us rebuild.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

My House Still Leans

I just got back to New Orleans from D.C. Today some very powerful people, including Senators Leahy, Landrieu, Lott, Hatch, and Specter, along with many insurance industry lobbyists, all apologized for my family's misfortunes in dealing with Allstate and Haag Engineering over the past year and a half. But my house still leans. It's good to see my family and dogs though.

Monday, March 05, 2007

My Testimony In Favor of Leahy's "Insurance Industry Competion Act"

I fly in to D.C. Tuesday night, and Wednesday at 9:30 AM I'll testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The first panel of speakers includes senators such as Mary Landrieu and Trent Lott. I will be speaking in the second panel, along with Bob Hunter, the president of the Consumer Federation of America. We'll both be arguing in favor of Leahy's Insurance Industry Competition Act. Two speakers in my panel will be arguing against the act: Marc Racicot, president of the American Insurance Association, and Susan Voss, speaking on behalf of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. The whole thing should be over in an hour I'm told.

As I understand it, the senate is once again looking into repealing the McCarran-Ferguson Act which gave the insurance industry a federal antitrust status. The thinking at the time was that the states would regulate the industry. Some states do a good job of this, like California, and others, like my state of Louisiana, well, not so good. What seems to have turned the tide against the insurance industry's powerful lobby is that some key Republican senators, led by Trent Lott, are now in favor of repealing the anti-trust status. I'm told they need 60 votes for this to move forward without the chance for a filibuster. I think that Trent Lott and myself will be the only ones at the hearing who had their homes severely damaged by Katrina. That means, at least in my megalomaniacal mind, that I'll be speaking on behalf of thousands of people who were screwed by the greed of the insurance industry, and millions more, who will be screwed by their insurance companies after future disastors unless something drastic is done to change the industry.

Here is the testimony that I will be presenting Wednesday:

Testimony of Dr. Michael M. Homan, Homeowner, New Orleans, LA

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee

March 7, 2007

Chairman Leahy, Ranking Member Specter, and Members of the Committee, thank you for holding a hearing on this important issue and giving me the opportunity to share my story with you today. Like many in the Gulf Coast region, my family’s lives were forever changed by Hurricane Katrina, and the devastation it brought to my city of New Orleans. But what brings me here today is the second personal tragedy that my family and I have suffered since Katrina because of the bad faith actions of Allstate Insurance.

My wife and I purchased our first house in New Orleans six years ago. We moved there from Jerusalem when I accepted a position to teach Theology at Xavier University. We were very attracted by what New Orleans and Louisiana had to offer, and we were also committed to giving back to the community. My wife teaches in the New Orleans Public Schools, where our children, Kalypso and Gilgamesh, are enrolled. Our home is in Mid-City, a great neighborhood in the heart of the city.

We were very happy living in New Orleans. We were employed with jobs that we loved, working to make New Orleans a better place, and at the same time we were building up equity in our beautiful 100-year-old home. However, our dreams were literally blown and washed away on August 29th of 2005, or to be more accurate, our dreams have died a slow death over the past 18 months because of Allstate Insurance. My wife, two children and I currently live in a FEMA trailer in the front yard of our collapsing home, as we continue to battle with Allstate over our insurance claim.

We insured everything we had with Allstate. This included homeowners, flood, and automobile insurance. They cashed every check we gave them. We slept well every night thinking that we were adequately insured with the self-designated “Good Hands” people. But we weren’t in good hands.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and our beautiful home. I was inside my house during the storm and it was like being on a large boat rocking back and forth from the wind gusts. The winds of hurricane Katrina racked our two-story house so that now it leans severely. The house next door to ours is also racked in the same direction.

Then later that night, after the levees failed, flood waters covered the first three feet of our house and this water remained for more than 10 days damaging the foundation and piers causing our house to lean even more. Right now as I speak, our home is in danger of falling onto our neighbor’s house. We have been told by several experts not to gut the house, as it would likely fall over, because the plaster and lathe is helping to support it.

We filed our claim for wind and flood with Allstate the day after Katrina. We expected things to move along quickly, but we were wrong. We called Allstate every day for several months, and wrote them frequently, but we rarely received answers. They played a shell game with us, providing us with 10 different agents through this ordeal, and it took nine months to get a wind adjustor to even visit our house.

The third flood adjuster we had was the first person representing Allstate to visit us at our house. He arrived in October of 2005. He noticed, as do all people, that our house was recently racked, and he ordered an engineer from Allstate to assess whether it was racked from wind or flood. We knew it was wind, but didn’t care either way, just as long as we received the funds to fix our home.

But then we waited and waited, and the engineers never showed up. We were told that everything hinged on that report, and we were told to be patient. The Allstate representatives all told us that the engineers would say it was racked from the flooding and we would be able to fix our home that way.

Several months passed, and we were running out of savings. We had to pay for our rent on top of our mortgage. We were insured so that Allstate would pay us “Additional Living Expenses” should our house be destroyed or be in an unlivable state like ours was; but Allstate said they wouldn’t pay “Additional Living Expenses” until they received the engineer’s report. In addition, FEMA would not give us rental assistance because we had “Additional Living Expenses” coverage with our insurance company. We clearly would have been better off if we had had no insurance, and we had never purchased a home.
Because of our financial situation, my family was forced to move into our structurally unsound home and spend nine months living in the upstairs portion that wasn’t flooded. We had to live there through a cold winter without heat.

Finally in February of 2006 – after 6 months of phone calls and letters- two men from Haag Engineering arrived at our home. They spent 15 minutes in our house taking pictures, and then they left. We didn’t hear anything until May 2006, when we received a letter from Allstate saying they were denying our claim for structural damage because of the Haag Engineer’s report. I read the cover letter and report several times in disbelief, as we were left with a $150,000 mortgage for a property that before Katrina was worth $215,000, but now in its damaged state is worth about $30,000. We thought about declaring bankruptcy, but we didn’t want to live with bad credit.

Fortunately for us, the Haag Engineer’s report was full of mistakes. They called our house the Wilson house, and they included pictures in their report that weren’t of our home. Their report actually claimed that the winds of Hurricane Katrina were not strong enough to rack a house, and at the end they even seemed to question whether or not our house flooded, even though the flood line is still visible nearly 3 feet above our floors and we have pictures of our house being under water.

My story is not unique. I’ve heard from dozens of other people in the same situation as us, where the insurance company hires an engineering firm to write the report they desire, and then they deny the claim. Thus the insurance company won’t be liable since they relied on a so-called “expert” witness. Haag Engineering has a long history of doing this work for the insurance industry, as I later learned.

Now Allstate is doing all they can to leave the region and cancel their existing policies. We qualify for funds to raise our house three additional feet so that the floors are just above where the flood waters rested. But to do that, our house would have to be five feet off the ground, and Allstate would cancel our policy because they now won’t insure any house more than four feet off the ground. Personally I would love to never write a check again to Allstate. All I want is for my home to be repaired and to have good insurance that my family can depend on.

My wife and I have kept an extensive journal documenting every phone conversation, unreturned calls and letters, and interactions we have had with Allstate Insurance. We filed a complaint with the Louisiana Insurance Commissioner James Donelon, and we have filed suit against Allstate in federal court. All we want is for Allstate to fix our house so that it is in the condition it was before Katrina. That’s what our insurance policy says and that is what Allstate must abide by.

We believe that our situation exemplifies the immoral and unethical way which Allstate and other insurance companies are acting towards the citizens of the Gulf Coast. We are fighting back and have the truth and extensive documentation on our side. I am confident that in the end through the court system justice will prevail. But Allstate is counting on many people to give up from fatigue and frustration and to not fight back.

In conclusion, I want you to know that there are many people like me, who were responsible, careful and civic-minded, and who had insurance. But when the worst disaster in this country's history struck and severely damaged our insured home, Allstate purposefully waited eight months, and then told us that our insurance was basically worthless because of a fraudulent report. They need to be held accountable and they need to be forced to live up to their end of the contract.

Allstate, like other insurance companies in the Gulf Coast, is at times acting unethically, immorally, unjustly, and their actions are in violation of the laws of this great country. Thank you for your time and attention, and I hope that this committee will take action with people like my family in mind. Thank you.