Why Is There So Little Edu Interest In Julia Keleher’s Case? Plus, Hard Omicron Decisions and Puff Pieces…

This is not a feel-good holiday post – at least until the end. That’s coming, including the procrastinator’s book list.

For today. A lot of people seem obsessed with the big kiss to Randi Weingarten in The Times, with the evolving headlines from “Can this Woman Save Public Education?” to the current “We Desperately Need Schools to get Back To Normal.” Yes, whatever she pays her flacks she should double. But the Goldstein piece at the beginning of the year was the signal about where things were going. This is just the PR campaign, and Goldberg is apparently an easy mark on education stuff.

A much bigger issue than Weingarten’s never ending public relations campaign is what to do about Omicron. It’s striking how hardened views have become. Just because schools stayed closed too long earlier in the year does not mean we should reflexively not close now. When facts change decisions should change and the facts on Omicron are evolving. More consistency would certainly help – keeping schools closed and bars open undermines any rationale for closing schools given how low the risk is for kids (and it would help if the media reported on the risk more forthrightly rather than dancing around touchy subjects about comorbidities.)

And people are not helping as Covid fatigue really sets in. I talked to a school nurse the other day who has parents pushing to send their Covid positive but vaccinated and asymptomatic students to school.

School officials in some places will likely face some tough and situational calls in January. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been ill-served by the nationalization of every issue and decision. That still seems true as we enter year three. Preemptively deciding schools should not close or, conversely, should certainly close, isn’t a great way to approach a dynamic situation. Like so many things in education the top line question, should schools close, is not useful and it’s the secondary questions that matter.

On the topic of asking questions, on Friday a federal judge sentenced Julia Keheler, the former education commissioner in Puerto Rico six months in prison and a $21,000 fine. We discussed her case a bit here when she entered a plea.

What’s wild is that the charges she pled to have nothing to do with what she was originally indicted for. And when she was initially charged in 2019*,

Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Ávila-Marrero had personally benefited from the scheme

That’s still true. Essentially it looks like her choice was to go to trial – costly and risky – on a host of charges or plead out to something minor and get on with her life. And prosecutors have leaned on her hard since the start and the case certainly raises questions about overcharging and the final disposition doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I don’t know Keleher well, but have interacted professionally and I did write a letter on her behalf because it’s hard to see the public benefit to her spending six months in prison. The Times story puts this in perspective.

Andy Plattner sent a missive on Friday to a list he maintains, here’s a part:

Most people never got to hear that at no time did the prosecutors allege that Julia took public money or benefitted personally from government dollars.

And most people never got any sense of Julia’s character or determination to do the right thing for students. She cares, she acts, she stands up for the people, particularly children, that too seldom have advocates.

It may be that a jury would have declared Julia innocent. But that was far from certain given the government’s refusal to move the trial to a more neutral setting from Puerto Rico where Julia had been hung in effigy and routinely debased on social media.

In the end, she pled guilty to two counts to move on, to acknowledge her mistakes, serve her time in federal prison and reclaim her life.

My wife and I have been lucky enough to get to know Julia well over the last 30 months. I was struck by the grace with which Julia handled herself and her concern for others when it would have been easy to bitterly turn inward. I was also struck by her analytical understanding of the need to improve Puerto Rico’s schools out of both compassion and economic necessity.

We have three daughters about the same age as Julia. I would be delighted if they demonstrated the same character and quality under fire.

I can’t say the same for many of those in the reform community who largely have turned away from her. Some assumed once she was indicted, she likely was guilty; the plea agreement will assure them they were right. Some believed in her but were unwilling to risk their own reputation to stand up and say something. Her colleagues who are chief state school officers did nothing publicly nor privately. The philanthropic community was not to be found even in seeking to understand her case.

There is a lesson that those trying to improve public schools learn early and often: If you try to reform the status quo, the establishment pushes back and often with disproportionate force.

But in the case of Julia Keleher, the establishment simply went ballistic.

OK, not leave on a sour note, I often leave a link for some music at the bottom of posts, but here’s an embed for today:

*Updated, originally said 2018, correct year is 2019.