Mitt Romney And Wilfredo Laboy

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What would the election of Mitt Romney mean for education? Observers are parsing his recent speech and examining his record as Governor of Massachusetts, as they should. Politics isn’t my beat, but I hope some reporters will ask the candidate about Wilfredo Laboy.

Laboy is the former superintendent of schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who is probably doing time as you read this. In March he was sentenced to 90 days in a House of Correction, followed by a year of house arrest, 600 hours of community service, and an unspecified amount of restitution, after being found guilty of embezzlement (five counts) and one charge of possession of alcohol on school property. At the sentencing the presiding judge, Essex Superior Court Judge Richard E. Welch, described Laboy’s actions “plainly criminal conduct” and said he “abused his position of trust” as superintendent. Laboy was fired in 2010.

What does this have to do with Mr. Romney? Here’s an excerpt from a column I wrote nine or so years ago, on the subject of hypocrisy in education.

What happens when the school superintendent, 21 certified teachers and more than 40 percent of the town’s high school seniors fail tests they’re required to pass? (In the superintendent’s case, it’s the third time he had failed the basic literacy test.)

(A) No one is punished, and all receive extra support so they have a better chance of passing the retest.
(B) Everyone suffers the consequences. The seniors don’t graduate on time, and the adults are suspended without pay until they pass their tests.
(C) The students don’t graduate, but the educators keep their jobs.
(D) The students and teachers are punished, but the superintendent is praised by his state’s governor and receives a 3 percent raise to $156,560.

“A” is an unlikely choice in the current “get tough” educational environment, which calls for real consequences.

If you chose “B,” you deserve praise for consistency, but you’re also naïve. Maybe hopelessly so.

If you selected “C,” you have a better grasp of how the system works. You know that the world often operates on a double standard, with one set of rules for kids and another for adults. It’s perfectly logical to assume the system would blame kids for failing to learn but not find fault with adults who failed to teach them, or the adult who failed to lead his teachers. But “C” is also a wrong answer because Lawrence, Mass., was operating on a different kind of double standard.

That’s right. Believe it or not, “D” is the correct answer. At a news conference in August 2003, then-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney praised Lawrence superintendent Wilfredo Laboy and indicated that, as long as teachers were literate, the superintendent apparently didn’t need to be. “I’m not sure the superintendent of schools is in the same level of importance to me in terms of English skills as are the teachers in the classroom teaching our kids,” said Romney.

Laboy liked the governor’s reasoning. He told The Eagle-Tribune, which first reported the story, that the test had little relevance. “It bothers me because I’m trying to understand the congruence of what I do here every day and this stupid test,” said Laboy. “I didn’t meet the bar. But I think truly and honestly it has no relevancy to what I do every day. The fruits of my labor speak greater than not passing a test.” Laboy did not comment about the apparent inconsistency of suspending employees without pay for failing to meet state requirements while he continued on salary. And if he had doubts about the relevance of the graduation test to the real world that students live in, he kept them quiet.”

What were “the fruits” of Mr. Laboy’s labor? According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, only 254 out of 430 enrolled seniors in Lawrence passed the state exam, known as MCAS, in 2003. That’s a graduation rate of 59 percent or, put another way, a failure rate of 41 percent. Dig deeper and you find that in ninth grade, the Lawrence Class of 2003 had 917 students, meaning that 487 students disappeared along the way. 254 graduates out of 917 students is a pass rate of about 28 percent, giving Lawrence the lowest pass rate in Massachusetts.

Mr. Laboy finally managed to pass the test – on his fourth try.

At the time, I was taking a whack at the Animal Farm-like hypocrisy, a situation where the rules don’t apply to the bosses. But now, in light of Mr. Laboy’s criminal conviction and Mitt Romney’s nomination, I have two more questions:

Wilfredo Laboy was found guilty on five charges of embezzlement and one charge of possessing alcohol on school property.

1) What should we expect to happen when the people in charge lower the bar in order to hire someone who, by the state’s own standard, is not qualified?

2) What was Mitt Romney thinking when he said it was OK to hire someone who had failed the qualification test three times?

Apparently Superintendent Laboy concluded that, since the rules about hiring did not apply to him, neither did any of the other rules, regulations or laws. I say that because the record indicates that he proceeded to run the school system to suit himself, and to benefit himself. When he was fired, it was alleged that he had school employees doing electrical work at his home, picking up his grandchildren after school, and taking out his trash. “This was all about him,” Assistant Essex District Attorney Maureen Wilson Leal told the court. “He thought he was untouchable.”

Now about Governor Romney. Remember, he was Governor of the state where public education originated. And education is, of course, a state responsibility. So here comes a soft pitch down the middle of the plate, something like, “Governor, what do you think about Lawrence hiring a man who has failed the literacy exam three times to be school superintendent?”

It doesn’t get any easier than that, does it?

The Governor could have said, “It’s the wrong message to send to students and teachers.”

Or: “We need confidence in our leaders at all levels, and, if a man can’t pass a qualifying test, then he’s not qualified and shouldn’t be hired.”

Or: “Why do we give these tests if we aren’t going to pay any attention to the results?”

Or: “It’s hypocritical behavior by the Lawrence School Board, and I am ordering my State Department of Education to look into it, immediately.”

As we know, Governor Romney said none of these things. I suppose one could argue that this incident reveals more about Mitt Romney the politician than Mitt Romney the educator, but that’s cold comfort.


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13 thoughts on “Mitt Romney And Wilfredo Laboy

  1. Or Romney could have pointed out that the standardized tests are inadequate indicators of knowledge or thinking – which he implied in his comments – and he could then have applied that observation/conclusion to teachers and students. He then would have been reasonably correct. Of course he was (and is) gung-ho for high-stakes testing for the other folks in the system.

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  2. This anecdote does reveal more about Mitt Romney as a politician and as an educator, but that’s not all. It also reveals more about Mitt Romney as a fellow human being, and the revelation isn’t pretty.

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  3. John: you said “Politics isn’t my beat”, then you took a political position. Shame. Enough for me. Please drop me from your ‘beat’.

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    • Bruce and Stallworth: Here’s what I wrote in an earlier blog, another ‘political position,’ I suppose. Did you not see this, or did this critique not offend you?

      “The real problem is not the Constitution’s limits on the federal role in education. For all its talk of public education as ‘the civil rights issue of our time,” this Administration, like the one before it, simply does not have a powerful vision of what genuine education might be. Full of the same hubris that led to No Child Left Behind, it believes in technical solutions.

      Channeling Dr. King, this might be Secretary Duncan’s version of that famous speech: “I have a dream that all children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin or the content of their character but by their scores on standardized tests.””

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    • But you didn’t object when I have criticized the Obama Administration or Secretary Duncan? What’s up with that??

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  4. Explain ‘hatchet job’ please. How is my analysis unfair or slanted? The man gave his approval to an incompetent who then turned out to be a crook. Is it possible that, when the Governor and others looked the other way, that sent a signal to the Superintendent that he was above the law? Seems plausible to me, not a ‘hatchet job.’

    I expect more from leaders, and I hope you do too

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  5. John, thank you for seeking to ground this discussion in factual information, the substance of excellent reporting.

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  6. While your story involves education, it is probably also instructive about candidate Mitt Romney’s political instincts too. Of course, Romney’s refusal to face facts here was exacerbated by the apparent refusal of the Lawrence School Board to do so as well. As a former school director in PA (12 years), I think we have to rethink, in ways that the Obama administration has tried to initiate, the big issue of governance in public education. The election of local school boards and the prominence of “local control” can also lead to the abuses you expose in the article.

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    • David, you are right about the Lawrence School Board. Here’s more from my original column:

      Other leaders pledged their support of Laboy as well. “I judge him based on how well our kids are doing in the schools,” Michael Sullivan, then the mayor and school committee chairman of Lawrence, told the Boston Herald. “I will stay the course with him because he’s doing an incredible job for the kids.”

      Read my piece again to remind yourself of his ‘incredible’ job–the highest non-pass rate in the entire state!

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  7. And what about Obama hiring Duncan when his Renaissance program was such a failure. What does it say about RTTT funds going to privateers, testing companies and other reformers who weren’t in the “education game” until they saw the $$$ they could make. Obama supports charters. Obama supports testing and more testing although he says differently. Both candidates are on the same page on this issue.

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  8. The lack of public understanding of education and of public will to do what it would take to improve teaching and learning so that students succeed in school is accentuated by this account. The superintendent is guilty on so many counts, the community for not acting more quickly, and the governor for glib affirmation of malpractice.

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