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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
- While Louisiana law permits collective bargaining by teachers, school districts are not required to enter into collective bargaining agreements. ↩
- 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. ↩
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
All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers
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 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.
Louisiana is ready for a new direction. https://t.co/eDLPMl5tEC
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) April 12, 2017
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.
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…
- Although he called out sick on February 23rd, he noted in a blog post that he actually went to Baton Rouge to attend the final meeting of the Governor’s ESSA Advisory Council;
- He took sick leave on March 29th, but again mentioned on his blog that he was in Baton Rouge at a BESE meeting;
- The same goes for May 18th (he also missed May 17th), when he was “sick” in Baton Rouge to introduce House Bill 536 with State Rep. Vincent Pierre, as he wrote in a blog post ironically titled, “HB-536: Who really puts children first?”
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.
— LAE (@LAEducators) November 16, 2016
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.
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) November 17, 2016
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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