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Ira, Stan & Much Ado About DBEs

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On my honor, I swear to make a mockery of the Orleans Parish School Board

On my honor, I swear to make a mockery of the Orleans Parish School Board…

Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas is playing racially-charged, self-serving political games on the school board and the target of his machinations is once again OPSB Superintendent Stan Smith.

On Thursday, the Times-Picayune reported that Thomas was trying to schedule an emergency meeting aimed at demoting Smith and possibly installing Armand Devezin as superintendent. However, Thomas was unable to secure the quorum needed to hold the meeting because, as board member Sarah Usdin bluntly put it, “There’s not an emergency.”

Unfortunately for Stan Smith (and those of us who subscribe to the crazy idea that elected officials actually serve the public interest) it’s unlikely that this setback will deter Thomas’ effort to replace him [In fact, Thomas announced this morning (6/25/13) that he plans to address the superintendency issue in the next two days]. It all started at OPSB’s first full post-election meeting in February, when Thomas filed a last-minute item to the agenda seeking to nullify Smith’s superintendent contract. Thomas’ attempted coup de main almost immediately fell apart, however, when board members balked at his suggestion that Smith’s contract was never actually approved by the board. Instead, they passed a substitute motion put forward by Seth Bloom asking Thomas and Vice-President Leslie Ellison to revise the contract and bring it back for ratification at a later date [As of 6/25/13, the board has yet to receive a revised contract from Thomas and Ellison].

While one would expect that Thomas would give up this crusade after its spectacular failure in February, his behind-the-scenes maneuvers over the past week indicate otherwise. So why is Ira Thomas so hellbent on replacing Stan Smith? Have schools fallen into disrepair? Are the district’s finances in shambles? Has student performance plummeted? Nope. In fact, to Smith’s credit, things in the district have hummed right along under his leadership. Rather, Thomas is seeking to oust Smith over an issue that has nothing to do with the actual educational mission of OPSB: district construction contracts.

Board member Cynthia Cade, the Robin to Ira Thomas' Batman

Don’t let the smile fool you: Cynthia Cade has strongly supported Thomas’ effort to sack Stan Smith

As noted in a recent article in the The Advocate, both Thomas and board ally Cynthia Cade have focused much of their energy over the past year on “ensuring that district contractors hire minority-owned businesses for construction work.” Last summer, Thomas and Cade successfully pushed a resolution requiring that 35% of the value of each district contract be directed toward toward minority-owned contractors, certified as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs). In spite of this success, Thomas and Cade again raised the issue at OPSB’s September meeting, when they hijacked board’s agenda to interrogate Smith and comptroller Wayne DeLarge (video: starts at 26:40 here and continues here) about the decision to allocate additional funding and staff to the district’s charter school office rather than the DBE office. When Smith attempted to offer an explanation, Thomas simply ignored him and instead insinuated that prejudice somehow played a role in the Superintendent’s decision.

Ensuring that DBEs receive a fair share of district contract work should be a priority for OPSB’s administration and although they have sought to portray the Superintendent as an opponent of the program, neither Thomas nor Cade have produced a shred of evidence indicating that Smith has sought to undermine it. Ultimately, it’s become clear that the motives behind these attacks have more to do with power than with the fair allocation of OPSB contracts. Thomas has seized upon the DBE program, intended to promote inclusivity in the district’s business practices, and twisted it into a divisive issue to strengthen his position on the board and install one of his own in the district’s top post.

One issue that has not been explored in the course of this ongoing drama is who stands to possibly benefit from Thomas’ bullying over the DBE program. Interestingly enough, a review of Thomas’ 2012 campaign finance reports surface a number of individuals and entities that are directly or indirectly connected to DBEs:

To be clear, the mere fact that so many supporters of Ira Thomas’ reelection campaign have connections to DBE contracts in no way constitutes evidence of wrongdoing by either the donors or by Thomas. But, it certainly is a coincidence, isn’t it?

In the end, Thomas’ campaign against Stan Smith is ultimately self-defeating because his unscrupulous behavior on this issue, especially since becoming OPSB President, is so reminiscent of the board’s troubled pre-Katrina past. It’s clear that New Orleanians oppose a return to the days when our schools suffered while board members engaged in infighting and corruption. Yet, Thomas’ example undermines any notion that the Orleans Parish School Board, as currently structured, is capable of governing in a way that puts the needs of its students first. When the issue of local control is raised in the future, hopefully we’ll keep this lesson in mind.

For reference, here are links to the Candidate Reports filed by Ira Thomas and referenced above:

In addition, here are the lists of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) in both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes:

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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AFT On The Bayou Union Spends Less In Louisiana, But More On Charter Organizing in New Orleans

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) spent less overall in Louisiana in the past fiscal year than it did in F.Y. 2016, but the union boosted its funding for charter school organizing efforts in New Orleans by more than forty percent.

An analysis of expenditure data from AFT’s 2017 annual report to U.S. Department of Labor shows that the union spent $2,326,573 in Louisiana during the fiscal year that ended June 30th, a slight decrease from the from $2.49 million it spent in the state in 2016.

About a quarter of AFT’s spending went to political activities, which included nearly $125,000 in payments to the political action committee of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, as well as a $15,000 contribution to Defend Louisiana, a super PAC behind Foster Campbell’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate last fall. In addition, AFT spent nearly $370,000 to influence last year’s Orleans Parish School Board elections, as I exposed in a previous blog post in January.

A diagram showing the distribution of AFT’s F.Y. 2017 spending in Louisiana.

AFT also invested heavily in organizing activities across the Bayou State. It gave nearly $192,000 to Red River United to support recruitment in Bossier, Caddo, and Red River Parishes. AFT spent another $184,000 on organizing in Monroe and $147,000 in Jefferson Parish.

Furthermore, AFT’s most recent annual report suggests that the union is stepping up its efforts to organize charter schools in the Big Easy. In F.Y 2017, AFT national poured $412,926 into its New Orleans Charter Organizing Project, a significant increase from the $292,000 it allocated in 2016. In all, AFT spent more than $850,000 on its New Orleans-based activities in the past year.

Although their recruitment efforts in the city have had mixed success, AFT’s willingness to spend substantial sums of money in New Orleans makes clear they still pose a serious threat. Over the past four years, AFT has steered more than $1.6 million to organize New Orleans charter schools and roll back the city’s reforms.

We need to remain vigilant to ensure that never happens.


Explore the data:


Read AFT’s 2017 annual report:

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A Victory For Pettiness Over Progress Why Did The Governor Veto A Common Sense Education Bill?

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On Friday, Louisiana lawmakers voted to cancel a veto session to override Governor John Bel Edwards’ rejection of a number of bills passed by the legislature during this year’s regular session. The move was expected even though many Republican legislators accused the Governor of using his veto power to punish lawmakers who have consistently opposed his agenda.

Although the Governor’s line-item vetoes of construction projects in the state budget aroused the most controversy, the press largely overlooked his rejection of House Bill 568, a proposal from State Rep. Nancy Landry which would have revised the state’s student data privacy law.

Some background on H.B. 568

The story of House Bill 568 has its origins in a conversation I had last spring with a friend who works at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. For years, CREDO has produced highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of the state’s charter schools using data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). However, in 2015, LDOE officials informed CREDO they could no longer provide access to that information due to changes in the state’s student data privacy law, passed by the legislature in 2014, which prohibited the department from sharing data with research institutions outside of Louisiana.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford has published highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of charter schools.

Without access to student performance data, CREDO’s research on Louisiana’s charter schools would grind to a halt and education policymakers would lose an objective, in-depth assessment of the health of the state’s charter sector. Moreover, the refusal to share data with out-of-state researchers would mean that Louisiana’s influence on the national education policy debate would be significantly diminished.

Seeking to avoid that outcome, my friend at CREDO reached out to see if I had any ideas on how they should proceed. I connected her with State Rep. Nancy Landry, who serves as chair of the House Education Committee, to explain the situation and see if she could help. Their subsequent discussions resulted in H.B. 568, which Landry filed during this year’s regular legislative session.

State Rep. Nancy Landry (R – Lafayette), is chair of House Education Committee and has clashed with the Governor over education policy.

The bill sought to carve out an exception to the overly broad changes lawmakers made in 2014 by allowing data to be shared (in accordance with standard data privacy protection procedures) with researchers at any college or university in the United States accredited and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, H.B. 568 was limited in scope and non-controversial, as evidenced by the fact that it passed by large margins in both the House (95-3) and Senate (27-7).


Read more about how researchers use student data:

Student data privacy and education research must be balanced

Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on data privacy protections for students. Michael Hansen highlights the gravity of the debate around how Congress will update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for use in the modern age where big data is king.


So what’s with the veto?

Which brings us to the question of why Governor Edwards vetoed the legislation, especially when it had broad bipartisan support. Let’s start with the “official” rationale provided by the Governor in his veto message:

“The legislation requires LDOE to enter into a memorandum of understanding in which the person conducting such academic research agrees to be civilly liable for any fine imposed as a violation of authorized uses of the student information. Under current law, a person who violates authorized uses of the student information is subject to both criminal and civil penalties. House Bill 568 references civil penalties only relative to the memorandum of understanding. However, it does not create an exception to the criminal liability provisions in current law. Because of these drafting concerns, I have vetoed House Bill 568.”

The contention that the Governor felt compelled to veto the bill over a technicality – i.e., it didn’t create an explicit exception to the criminal liability provision in the current law – is unconvincing. Even though H.B. 568 didn’t specifically address criminal liability, it’s not at all clear that it necessarily needed to do so. In any case, from a practical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that a prosecutor would pursue a misdemeanor conviction – as opposed to a civil fine – against an employee of an out-of-state research institution. In fact, to my knowledge, no one has ever faced criminal charges in Louisiana for violating the state’s student data privacy law. It’s also worth noting that the Governor’s Office never raised this concern as H.B. 568 was winding its way through the legislature and could have been amended.

The Governor’s Office never raised concerns about H.B. 568 as it was making its way through the legislature.

When taken together, the facts suggest that the decision to veto House Bill 568 had little to do with the content of the legislation and more to do with its author. Rep. Landry has clashed with the Governor repeatedly over education policy in recent years and several of the Governor’s school-related proposals have died in the House Education Committee, which Landry chairs. Although Edwards would not be the first governor to use his veto pen to punish lawmakers who opposed his agenda, it makes no sense to apply it to a bill as innocuous and apolitical as H.B. 568, especially seeing that Rep. Landry had nothing to gain by sponsoring the legislation.

Nevertheless, Governor Edwards did just that. Thanks to his veto, Louisiana’s overly broad and mind-numbingly parochial student data privacy law remains in force. Out-of-state academics who want to study our public schools will be told to look elsewhere. And as a result, our public education system won’t be able to benefit from the knowledge and insights their research would provide.


Read House Bill 568:


Read the Governor’s Veto Message:

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