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When All Else Fails, File a Civil Rights Complaint

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In May, a national coalition that includes the Journey For Justice Alliance (J4J), the Advancement Project, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the National Education Association (NEA), filed a civil rights complaint [see full text of complaint below] alleging that the Recovery School District’s school closure policy “provides circumstantial evidence of intentional discrimination” against African-American students. The complaint seeks to stop the RSD from closing its remaining direct-run schools, to establish a moratorium on charter school renewals and conversions, and to reestablish traditional neighborhood schools across New Orleans.

Defenders of the Recovery School District point to the involvement of AFT and NEA, as well as the fact that the complaint was filed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as evidence that the filing is a publicity stunt aimed at discrediting the progress of New Orleans’ public schools. Louisiana State Superintendent John White was even more explicit in an interview with the Times-Picayune, saying, “The report, from a factual perspective, is a joke.” He continued:

“It is a nationally coordinated campaign to achieve political objectives, dominated by and driven by national teacher unions and other political interests (that) are doing this for everything to do with politics and nothing to do with children.”

Louisiana State Superintendent John White (left, with RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard) said, “The report, from a factual perspective, is a joke.”

Louisiana State Superintendent John White (left, with RSD Supt. Patrick Dobard) said, “The report, from a factual perspective, is a joke.”

Confused Logic and Misplaced Blame

As noted by White, a close reading of the recent complaint reveals an unconvincing, and at times, contradictory argument in making the case that the Recovery School District (RSD) discriminates against African-American students. To start, the complaint asserts that the closure of the RSD’s five remaining direct-run schools is discriminatory by virtue of the fact that the students in those schools are almost all African-American.

Apparently the complaint’s authors were unaware that a federal judge rejected that very same argument in a case in Washington, D.C. last year, in which a local activist group sought an injunction against District of Columbia Public Schools to block the closure of 15 under-enrolled and underperforming schools. Plaintiffs claimed the closures amounted to a civil rights violation because the schools slated for closure served overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic student populations.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed a similar complaint last year saying, "The remedy Plaintiffs seek – i.e., to remain in such schools – seems curious, given that these are the conditions most people typically endeavor to escape.”

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg rejected Journey For Justice Alliance’s argument in a case in Washington, DC last spring.

In his opinion dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg lambasted the plantiffs’ position, pointing out the irony that an effort move students out of failing schools would be construed as discriminatory:

“In this case, there is no evidence whatsoever of any intent to discriminate on the part of Defendants, who are actually transferring children out of weaker, more segregated, and under-enrolled schools. The remedy Plaintiffs seek – i.e., to remain in such schools – seems curious, given that these are the conditions most people typically endeavor to escape.”

The Journey For Justice Alliance’s complaint also maintains that the admissions policies of a handful of the the city’s highest-achieving schools are designed to exclude African-American students, but it lays the blame for the problem at the feet of the wrong party.

The highest-performing – i.e., selective-admissions – public schools in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina were exempt from the RSD’s takeover in November 2005. With the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in shambles in the aftermath of the storm, many of these schools seized the opportunity to reopen as OPSB charters, while retaining their selective-admissions policies. As a result, they have continued to draw a disproportionate number of their students from a demographic that has otherwise been largely absent from the public school system: white, middle-class families.

Nine charters under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board (highlighted in yellow) have resisted joining OneApp, the RSD-run citywide enrollment system.

Nine charters under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board (highlighted in yellow) have resisted joining OneApp, the RSD-run citywide enrollment system.

These nine high-performing, selective-admissions OPSB charters have also refused to participate in OneApp, the RSD-run citywide enrollment system established to ensure that all families have a fair shot in the application process. While every school in the RSD is required to use OneApp, this subset of elite OPSB charters have chosen to retain their separate admissions processes, in spite of entreaties by both RSD officials and prominent reform advocates to join the citywide enrollment system.

The J4J coalition maintains these schools have spurned OneApp in an effort to exclude low-income and minority families who may not have the knowledge or wherewithal to navigate the various admissions processes. As OPSB-sanctioned charters, the RSD cannot legally compel these schools to join OneApp, and the school board has refused to require them to participate until their charters are renewed, which in some cases won’t happen until 2021. Nevertheless, the coalition’s complaint illogically blames the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and RSD – not the Orleans Parish School Board – for the current state of affairs. As Superintendent White pointed out:

“It is high irony that you criticize the people who have tried to create an open-enrollment policy across all schools and have only failed to get the most privileged schools.”

Activist Karren Harper Royal, one of the signatories to the J4J civil rights complaint, blames RSD for OPSB's problem.

Activist Karran Harper Royal, one of the signatories to the civil rights complaint, blames RSD for OPSB’s problem.

RSD Critics Suddenly Change Their Tune

The coalition’s filing also signals a shift in the tactics and rhetoric of reform opponents, changes which in some cases directly contradict their earlier positions. For instance, one of the long-standing criticisms raised by opponents such as Tulane University’s Lance Hill, is that the RSD takeover created a two-tiered system of public schools in New Orleans between charter schools and those directly-run by the RSD [see video below]. They argued that while some students may getting a better education in the city’s charters, the RSD’s direct-run schools had, in effect, become a “dumping ground” for students who couldn’t cut it the city’s charter schools.

Until recently, Karran Harper Royal, a local activist who is one of the signatories to the complaint, also attacked the RSD’s direct-run schools. In an interview with Louisiana Public Broadcasting last September, Royal claimed that RSD charters outperformed direct-run schools because the most challenging students were relegated to the latter:

“Those are the schools kids go to if they can’t get into a charter school. So, if you’re really taking the lower performing kids who can’t get into other schools, it only stands to reason that the charter schools are going to outperform the traditional schools.”

Just last year, Karran Harper Royal described the RSD's direct-run schools as "dumping grounds," but now that they're being closed, she wants to keep them open.

Just last year, Royal described the RSD’s direct-run schools as “dumping grounds,” but now that they’re being closed, she wants to keep them open.

After years of decrying the district’s direct-run schools, one would expect reform critics to applaud the RSD for closing schools where, in Hill’s words, “no learning happens whatsoever.” However, once RSD announced its plan to close those schools – thereby eliminating the “dumping ground” argument – the anti-reform “party line” suddenly changed, and those same critics are now clamoring to keep the RSD’s direct-run schools open.

The Role of Teachers Unions & the Threat of a Good Example

As for John White’s accusation that the Journey For Justice civil rights complaint is part of a “nationally coordinated campaign…dominated by and driven by national teacher unions” circumstantial evidence would seem to support the claim. For example, on the same day it filed its complaint against the RSD and LDOE, the coalition also filed civil rights complaints against the Chicago and Newark school systems, two districts currently engaged in fierce battles with AFT-affiliated teachers unions.

And while Karren Harper Royal vehemently denies that unions were behind the recent complaint, she recently revealed J4J’s close relationship with the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO, again an AFT-affiliate) in an interview with Rethinking Schools :

“I’m very close to the United Teachers of New Orleans…I’m part of a coalition that meets over at the union office: the Coalition for Community Schools-NOLA. We participated in protests and many, many meetings with the school district about ways to keep schools as community schools rather than becoming charter schools. We’re currently involved in the Journey for Justice Listening Project.”

Notice any pattern in these photographs from a recent protest at an RSD direct-run school (top left) and at subsequent rallies in support of J4j's civil rights complaint?

Notice any pattern in these photographs from Journey For Justice events?

Furthermore, there’s AFT’s rather conspicuous presence at Journey For Justice Alliance events, including a rally in support of the complaints in Washington, D.C. attended by none other than AFT President Randi Weingarten.

But why would a national teachers union like the American Federation of Teachers want to discredit New Orleans public schools? It could have something to do with the fact that the RSD’s takeover had a devastating effect on UNTO, which was once the largest and most powerful AFT local in the state. The union, which had over 5000 members prior to the storm, saw its ranks plummet to as low as 300 within a year. Moreover, UTNO’s periodic efforts to reassert itself over the years have fizzled; the Orleans Parish School Board rejected a collective bargaining agreement with the union in 20081 and recruitment efforts at charter schools in the city2 have made little headway.

UTNO recently celebrated it's 75th Anniversary, albeit on life support.

UTNO lived to celebrate it’s 75th Anniversary, albeit on life support.

However, it’s more likely that New Orleans was targeted because the city’s post-Katrina school system poses – to borrow a phrase from Noam Chomsky – “the threat of a good example.” Although skeptics still condescendingly refer to the city’s public education system as “an experiment,” after nearly a decade of steadily rising test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance numbers, it has become harder and harder to argue that the gains are anything but real. The experimental phase is over; the paradigm has shifted.

What New Orleans has shown is that real, sustained academic improvement is possible, even in large urban districts beset by decades of failure. The key is dismantling monolithic school system bureaucracies that too often focus on the prerogatives of entrenched interests – be they politicians, district administrators, vendors, or teachers unions – rather than the needs of students and families. Over the years, states and districts across the country [see: Tennessee’s ASD, Michigan’s EEA, Virginia’s OEI, etc.] have sought to follow New Orleans’ example and therein lies the threat.

After nine years of improvement, it's gotten hard to argue that the gains are anything but real.

After nine years of improvement, it’s gotten hard to argue that the gains are anything but real.

From this perspective, the recent civil rights complaint can be seen as a part of a cynical shift in strategy by reform opponents. Unable to explain away the overwhelming evidence that the post-Katrina school system is working, anti-reformers are instead simply attempting to portray the reforms in a racially divisive light. When the complaints were filed, Karran Harper Royal proclaimed that the RSD’s efforts represent “the new Jim Crow.” Of course, if anything, low-income and minority students have been the prime beneficiaries of the improvements in New Orleans schools. Then again, whether the Journey For Justice Alliance is working for the unions or not, one thing has never been in doubt: they’re not working for children.


  1. While Louisiana law permits collective bargaining by teachers, school districts are not required to enter into collective bargaining agreements. 
  2. However, the staff at Ben Franklin High School, which ironically is one of the schools that has refused to participate in OneApp, recently voted to join UTNO. 

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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[…] he serves on on the Executive Council of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO).1 As I discussed in a previous post, UTNO and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, have been involved in […]

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Very well done piece Peter.

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Charters

All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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Charters

PSA: NAACP Charter School Hearing Tonight Don't Let Critics Distort The Story In New Orleans

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Tonight, the NAACP will be holding a hearing on charter schools at the New Orleans City Council Chambers (1300 Perdido Street) starting at 5:30pm. It will be the sixth hearing that the NAACP has held in cities across the country following their inexplicable call for a moratorium on charter schools last fall.

Flyer for tonight’s NAACP hearing.

The NAACP’s call for a moratorium has been roundly criticized by education reform advocates, as well as by the editorial board of The New York Times, which called the move “a misguided attack” by an organization that “has struggled in recent years to win over younger African-Americans, who often see the group as out of touch.” The Washington Post was even more scathing in their take on the moratorium, linking the NAACP’s recent turn against charters to the substantial financial support the group has received from the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.

Angry charter school parents from Memphis confronted NAACP officials at their national meeting in Cincinnati last fall.

In any case, NAACP officials have apparently decided to dispense with any pretense of objectivity at tonight’s meeting by inviting a number of outspoken charter opponents to speak, including:

  • Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola who filed a specious civil rights complaint against a local charter network that was eventually dismissed by the Louisiana Department of Education for lack of evidence;
     
  • Walter Umrani, an anti-charter candidate for the District 4 seat on the Orleans Parish School Board who received only 13% of the vote;
     
  • Willie Zanders, the lead attorney in the class action lawsuit against the Orleans Parish School Board and State of Louisiana over the layoffs of school board employees following Hurricane Katrina that was dismissed by the Louisiana Supreme Court;
     
  • Adrienne Dixson, a former education professor from Illinois who recently compared the education landscape in New Orleans to “The Hunger Games”;


  • State Rep. Joe Bouie who has used his position on the House Education Committee to spread misinformation about charter schools and engage in obstructionism, as seen below.

Charter school supporters need to attend tonight’s NAACP hearing to ensure that the truth is heard and that the positive impact that charters have had on the children of this city is not denied.

I hope to see you there!

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