Recently Newsweek, the once-lauded news magazine that is now a shell of its former self, cast aside any lingering shred of respectability it still had with the publication of a highly distorted appraisal of New Orleans’ post-Katrina education system. The piece, entitled, The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’ schools a model for the nation – or a cautionary tale was written by Andrea Gabor, who is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY, as well as the author of several books.
It’s hard to understand why Newsweek’s editors would think Gabor was the right “journalist” to report on New Orleans’ schools. After all, as I’ve noted elsewhere, her opposition to education reform is well documented and she aligns herself with anti-reform zealots like Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch. Given her clear bias, it comes as no surprise that her reporting on New Orleans’ public education system is shot through with inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and glaring omissions of fact. When taken together, one cannot help but conclude that Gabor is pushing her political agenda at the expense of her journalistic principles.
As I review in detail below, Andrea Gabor’s “secret recipe” for reporting on New Orleans’ public schools is as follows:
- Prepare the story you want to tell in advance
- Add or withhold facts depending on taste
- Season liberally with anecdote
- Before serving up your political agenda, coat it with a thin veneer of objectivity
It is a simple formula, but certainly an effective one for someone keen to knock one of education reform’s victories off its pedestal, especially when they have The Daily Beast / Newsweek as a platform from which to shout their calumny.
What follows is an attempt to set the record straight.
A Few Inaccuracies, Misrepresentations, and Omissions…
The inaccuracies in Gabor’s article start from almost the very beginning, and her relationship with the truth goes downhill from there. For example, she maintains that “seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education,” which is false [see the RSD’s most recent SPS data here]. Interestingly enough, this is the same incorrect statistic touted incessantly by Research on Reforms, a local anti-reform group which Gabor cites several times in her article to support her positions. What Gabor neglects to mention is that this “local research and advocacy organization,” as she calls it, is comprised solely of former officials from the pre-Katrina Orleans Parish School Board regime, none of whom are professional researchers. Given the fact that such disclosures would undermine the credibility of their statements, one can see why Gabor leaves those details out.
Making sweeping generalizations while omitting facts that run counter to her argument is a tactic that Gabor employs throughout her article. In making her case that New Orleans’ charter system turns its back on students with the greatest needs she writes:
“In New Orleans, critics argue that the pressure to show high test scores and get kids into college, combined with the broad leeway given to charter schools to suspend and expel students, means the “difficult to teach” kids have been effectively abandoned.”
The claim that charters have carte blanche to expel students is not only false, but once again, Gabor leaves out an important part of the story: New Orleans has adopted a district-wide expulsion system to ensure that those “difficult to teach” students are not being unfairly pushed out. As reported by the Times-Picayune earlier this year, “All 87 schools – except for the International School of Louisiana – participated in the new system, where students recommended for expulsion are routed through a central office and a single hearing officer.”
The Times-Pic continues, “The goal of the new system was not to cut expulsions to zero but to bring everything into the open and unify what constituted expellable offenses, making that punishment a true last resort.” In terms of the aim of ensuring that expulsion is reserved for only the most extreme cases, the district-wide system has been a success. Last year, only 272 students (or about 0.6% of approximately 48,000 students) were expelled from New Orleans’ public schools – a far cry from the vast number of castaways that Gabor wants to impart in the minds of readers.
Nevertheless, the distortion that New Orleans’ school system callously disregards the city’s highest-need students and families is a message that Gabor returns to again and again. At one point, she states that the city’s decentralized network of charter schools serves as a barrier to all but the most savvy parents:
“One undeniable reality is that negotiating the new charter-dominated system has been complicated for students; it also has favored those who have the most parental support…Part of what makes the New Orleans school system so complicated is that it is essentially two systems: the smaller, high-performing, mostly selective schools, which were never taken over by the state—though many were converted to charters—and the 60 or so schools within the RSD.”
It’s interesting that Gabor conveniently fails to mention of one of the Recovery School District‘s major initiatives in recent years – The OneApp System – which was established to remedy the very problem she raises. Admittedly, a system comprised of largely autonomous charter schools presents a challenge to parents without the knowledge or wherewithal to navigate the admissions process. But whereas Gabor wants to give the impression that reformers are insensitive to those with the greatest needs, in reality, the opposite is true.
The RSD and pro-reform advocacy groups in the city have come together to push for the systemwide adoption of OneApp to ensure that all families, regardless of their circumstances, have a fair shot in the application process. And while every charter school in the RSD participates in the OneApp process, it should be noted that the few schools that have resisted joining are those still under the aegis of the local school board. It’s hard to believe that Gabor was not aware of the OneApp system, seeing that the Orleans Parish School Board’s resistance to it has been the subject of headlines over the past several months. Therefore, how does one explain the fact that Gabor never mentions it?
Of course, no anti-education reform diatribe would be complete without a unfair swipe or two at Teach For America, and Gabor’s piece in Newsweek is no exception. At one point she states:
“After the storm, the state fired the city’s unionized teachers, who were mostly middle-aged African-Americans, an action that has been challenged in court. While a few schools have hired back teachers who worked in the pre-Katrina schools, the city now relies heavily on inexperienced educators—mostly young, white, and from out of town—who are willing, at least in the short run, to put in grueling hours.”
She then goes on to add, “In New Orleans, teachers with certifications from Teach for America number close to 400, five times the level a few years ago.” First of all, it should be noted that Teach For America does not certify teachers – only the Louisiana Department of Education has the authority to issue teaching credentials, whether those educators come through TFA or the traditional route. Second, while TFA may be five times the size it was previously, when Gabor says “a few years ago” she in fact means “eight years ago.”
More importantly, what did TFA have to do with the layoffs of Orleans Parish School Board employees following Katrina? Nothing. What evidence does Gabor provide to demonstrate that schools have sought to hire TFA corps members at the expense of local African-American teachers? None. What does the fact that TFA’s Greater New Orleans corps has grown prove in relation to either of the above? Zero. Obviously, you’re forgiven if you can’t follow the logic of Gabor’s point since there doesn’t seem to be any.
Gabor uses anecdote, in addition to inaccuracies and omissions, in her effort to malign New Orleans’ post-Katrina education system. She faults charter schools’ focus on college-readiness as one reason why the system is supposedly letting so many students fall through cracks and points to the extreme example of one former Sci Academy student to illustrate her point:
“The premise of the New Orleans charter-school experiment is that charters can educate all children. However, the experience of kids like Lawrence Melrose, another Sci Academy student, does not support that claim. Now 18, Lawrence’s life is a testament to both high levels of social dysfunction, including poverty and violence, and the inability of some charter schools to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged kids.”
Sadly, Lawrence no longer attends Sci Academy. After a string of criminal offenses, he was finally arrested for armed robbery and – after being found incompetent to stand trial several times – was handed a 10-year sentence. While there is no question that Lawrence’s story is tragic, it is also exceptional. Although Gabor maintains that “his case points to problems not only with the quality of individual schools in New Orleans, but also with government oversight…of charter schools,” it actually speaks to the sorry state of Louisiana’s dismantled mental health system. For in the final analysis, despite Sci Academy’s best efforts to work with Lawrence, he required the help that only a psychiatric hospital can provide. For Gabor to lay the responsibility for Lawrence’s fate at the feet of Sci Academy – or the education system more broadly – is simply disingenuous.
These are but a few examples of the inaccuracies, misrepresentations and omissions that emerge in the course of Gabor’s article, but it is her refusal to provide a comparison of New Orleans’ pre-and post-Katrina school systems that most clearly reveals the ideological bent in her reporting.
Ignoring the Past to Malign the Present…
While Gabor plays fast-and-loose with facts and figures in describing the current state of the school system, the dysfunctional morass from which it emerged merits only passing reference:
“After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, education reformers swept away what remained of the traditional public schools in what had been one of the nation’s lowest-performing districts”
“Of course, New Orleans had been a troubled school district long before Katrina. While schools were improving before the storm, charter advocates point to a faster rate of improvement in the years since”
No seriously, that’s the extent of her discussion of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina public education system – the baseline from which to judge the system’s progress since 2005 – in her entire 4,663-word article.
Later, Gabor provides an unconvincing explanation for her decision to exclude a relative assessment of New Orleans’ old and new systems saying, “pre- and post-Katrina comparisons are difficult, in large part because of a surge in funding for charters post-Katrina.” She then tries bolster her argument by citing figures from Andre Perry and Michael Schwamm-Baird that show “per-pupil funding in the 2006–07 and 2007–08 school years was about double what it had been in the two years immediately preceding the hurricane.”
Can anyone say cop-out?
To start, Gabor’s contention that pre-and post-Katrina comparisons are difficult (so much so that she doesn’t even try) due to a difference in per-pupil funding assumes that a district’s academic performance is simply a function of how much money goes into it. As those of us who have worked in public education can attest, that’s simply not the case; the reality is much more complicated.
Furthermore, even if we accept its assumption, Gabor’s argument ignores a not-so-minor factor that accounts for the funding differential she’s using as a red herring: the devastation of New Orleans by a flood that covered 80% of the city and destroyed all but a handful of its public schools. When one considers that education officials faced the challenge of not only rebuilding actual school buildings, but replacing the myriad things one takes for granted in a school – from desks and computers down to notebooks and pencils – the jump in the per-pupil expenditure looks like a pittance and certainly cannot account for the improvement in the district’s overall performance.
Moreover, Gabor’s own critique of New Orleans’ post-Katrina educational landscape is undermined by her willful lack of perspective. At one point, Gabor laments that “the progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace,” and uses New Orleans Charter Middle School (NOCMS) as an example:
“In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives, such as bicycle repair and African dance, to foster a love of learning. The school became the most highly rated nonselective school in the city before it was devastated during Hurricane Katrina.”
Gabor is correct that NOCMS was the city’s highest-rated nonselective school in the city before Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when I started teaching in New Orleans Public Schools in 2002, I had the opportunity to visit NOCMS, which at the time, seemed like paradise compared to the dismally failing schools in the rest of the district. But looking back on it now, NOCMS has lost some of its luster, for if the school was judged by today’s standards, NOCMS would be considered failing. In the 2004-2005 school year, NOCMS received a School Performance Score of 73.1, which as shown below, would translate into “F” based on the current grading scale.
To look at it from another perspective: The year before Hurricane Katrina shuttered the school forever, only 48.2% of NOCMS 8th graders were proficient in English Language Arts and 51.8% were proficient in math – and this, once again, was the highest-performing nonselective school in New Orleans at the time.
I bring this up not to disparage NOCMS, its founders, or those who worked hard each day for the students the school served. I raise this fact to underline the point that one cannot even begin to evaluate the post-Katrina transformation of New Orleans’ public schools without placing them within their broader context.
As my colleagues at New Schools for New Orleans correctly noted in their response to Gabor’s article, had she included the full picture of New Orleans’ educational progress since Katrina, readers would have been left with a much different impression of the city’s school system. For example, over the past eight years, New Orleans has:
- Increased the high school graduation rate from 54% to 78%, which now surpasses the Louisiana rate of 71%
- Increased the percentage of high school seniors eligible for TOPS scholarships (free or subsidized in-state college tuition) from 25% to 39%, approaching the state average of 43%
- Increased the percentage of 8th graders performing on grade level in Math and English from 28% to 67%, just one point shy of the state average of 68%
- Increased the performance of students with special needs so they now outperform the state average for students with special needs
- Achieved these gains while maintaining an expulsion rate lower than the state average
These are just a few of the statistics that Gabor could have included in her story to provide a more balanced picture of New Orleans’ public schools. Yet as we’ve seen above, it’s clear that Andrea Gabor never intended to present an honest accounting of the facts on the ground. Instead, she tossed aside her obligations as a journalist to tear down the achievements that educators in New Orleans have worked so hard for in the years since Hurricane Katrina.
Which raises one final question for Professor Gabor: Was it worth it?
A Sibling Dispute In Court Could Spell Trouble for Smothers Academy Charter School's CEO Is Accused Of Financial Impropriety In Lawsuit Filed By Brother
The CEO of a local charter management organization, which was investigated by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) after a report on this blog raised questions about its management and financial practices, is being accused of financial impropriety in a lawsuit filed by his own brother.
On March 28th, I published a post – “Red Flags Everywhere” – which highlighted troubling issues at Smothers Academy, a Type 2 charter school in Jefferson Parish. It noted that the school appeared to be in violation of state ethics laws prohibiting nepotism, seeing that Smothers Academy’s CEO Damon Smothers had hired his brother, Kemic Smothers, as the organization’s legal counsel and director of procurement. The piece also drew attention to several concerns surfaced in Smothers Academy’s F.Y. 2017 audited financial statements, including the assertion that Damon Smothers had spent over $9300 on the school’s credit card for personal expenses.
Read my original piece on Smothers Academy:
A review of documents from a Jefferson Parish charter operator that applied to run a historic high school in New Orleans has revealed that the organization could be violating state ethics laws and has been flagged for serious deficiencies in its management and accounting practices.
A week later, LDOE officials sent a letter to Eddie Williams, president of the board of directors of Smothers Academy, requesting documentation related to the problems identified in their audit. On April 17th, LDOE sent a second letter to Williams, which formally notified the board that Smothers Academy was in violation of the state’s nepotism laws and instructed them to terminate the employment of either Damon or Kemic Smothers by June 30th. As a result, Kemic was fired that same day.
Yet it appears that he is refusing to go without a fight.
Court documents reveal that Kemic is now suing his brother Damon (along with Smothers Academy, Inc., two members of the board of directors, and the school’s CFO Mark DeBose) for breach of contract, violation of the whistleblower statute, retaliatory discharge, and fraud.
In a petition filed with the Orleans Parish Civil District Court in July, Kemic claims that he was summoned to an April 5th meeting with his brother and CFO Mark DuBose in which they revealed that Damon had “gifted himself” $20,000 drawn from the school’s bank account without the knowledge or consent of the board of directors. They then asked Kemic to devise a way for Damon to keep the money without having to inform the board or repay it. However, Kemic refused, noting that the unauthorized allocation of funds was almost certainly illegal.
Kemic goes on to assert that he was subsequently terminated on April 17th – as opposed to June 30th when his contract officially ended – for refusing to help Damon hide the $20,000 he had taken from the school’s bank account. According to the lawsuit, “Damon Smothers insinuated that Kemic Smothers was not a team player and that he should have found a way for Damon Smothers to avoid repaying the $20,000.00.”
It should be noted that accusations made in Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit are simply that: accusations. The court has not ruled on the merits of the case. Nevertheless, in light of the board’s lax financial oversight and Damon’s questionable use of the school’s credit card, these latest allegations should be investigated to ensure that Smothers Academy administrators are not enriching themselves at the expense of their students.
Read Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit against his brother:
Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education
On January 15th, I sent a letter to the members of the Arkansas State Board of Education to bring their attention to the troubling revelations about Einstein Charter Schools that have emerged over the past several months.
Last fall, the State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein to open a new charter school in Little Rock after Einstein officials assured board members that they would provide transportation to students. This was the same promise they made to the Orleans Parish School Board last year as part of their charter renewal agreement. As we now know, they cannot be be taken at their word.
For some reason, I never received a response from anyone on the board. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish my original letter, which I’ve reproduced in full below.
Dear Board Members,
In September, the Arkansas State Board of Education approved a proposal from Einstein Charter Schools of New Orleans to open a new K-3 school in Little Rock School District. Today, I am writing to urge you to reconsider that decision in light of a series of troubling revelations about Einstein that have emerged here in New Orleans in the intervening months.
On September 19th, just five days after SBOE approved Einstein’s charter application, the Orleans Parish School Board issued an official notice of non-compliance [see notice here] to Einstein’s CEO and board president for failing to provide bus transportation to students as required by the terms of their charter. District officials became aware of this breach-of-contract after a parent reported that Einstein had refused to provide yellow bus service for her two children (5 and 10 years old) and instead offered them public transit tokens. News reports subsequently revealed that Einstein had been refusing to provide bus transportation to dozens of students.
Six weeks later, on November 7th, Einstein was issued another notice of non-compliance [see notice here] by the Orleans Parish School Board for enrolling 26 students outside of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system that assigns students to New Orleans’ public schools. In fact, the notice indicates that district officials previously investigated enrollment violations at Einstein in 2016 and had told administrators that the charter network needed to implement internal systems and procedures to ensure they were in compliance with the OneApp process.
These are serious violations that undermine the systems we have established to ensure that all children – regardless of race, socio-economic background, or disability status – have fair and equal access to our public schools. Since Hurricane Katrina, all of the city’s open enrollment schools – both charter and traditional – have been required to provide free bus transportation to children in pre-K through sixth grade, no matter where they live in the city. Moreover, the Orleans Parish School Board renewed Einstein’s charter last year on the condition that school provide transportation to its students.
In 2012, district officials launched OneApp to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. These preferences are then fed into an algorithm developed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which in turn, assigns students to schools. OneApp ensures that schools cannot engage in so-called “creaming” or turn away students with disabilities. All schools are required to participate in OneApp and all are prohibited from enrolling students outside of the system.
Nevertheless, Einstein’s leaders have responded to the school board’s warnings with outright defiance. As a result, the district is now seeking a court order to force Einstein to comply with the busing requirement. According to The Lens, a local non-profit news outlet, Einstein CEO Shawn Toranto responded to the OneApp non-compliance notice with a letter stating they had “simply accepted children whose parents had chosen one of its schools — a hallmark of the charter movement.” She has also taken to the pages of the New Orleans Advocate in an unconvincing attempt to deflect criticism of the school, as if the rules should not apply to them.
Finally, I want to make something very clear: I am outspoken supporter of charter schools. As a former charter school board member and teacher, I have seen the impact that high-quality charters can have on the lives of children. At the same time, I also firmly believe that charter schools are only successful when they adhere to clear operational and academic standards. Given their blatant disregard for the terms of their charter contracts in New Orleans (and the possibility that they could lose their charter if they continue to defy the district), I would once again urge you to reconsider Einstein’s expansion to Little Rock.
If you would like to read more about Einstein’s charter violations:
- Einstein Charter Schools Deemed Noncompliant For Providing Inadequate Transportation (9/21/17)
- Einstein board prepares to fight Orleans school district over its failure to bus students (9/25/17)
- Einstein Charter Schools Push Back Against Transportation Policy (10/25/17)
- Busing dispute at Einstein schools is headed to court (11/30/17)
- School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp (1/3/18)
- Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing (1/9/18)
Otherwise, thank you for your time and please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.
Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA
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