I recently came upon an article attacking New Orleans’ public schools in New York Teacher, the official magazine of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents over 200,000 educators in New York City’s public school system. The piece, written by Micah Landau, a “staff reporter” for the union (“staff reporter” apparently being UFT newspeak for “propagandist”), is filled with so many misleading and inaccurate statements that I’ve reproduced the article below with my fact-checking comments in bold.
The destruction of New Orleans’ public school system
by Micah Landau | June 26, 2014 New York Teacher issue
Call it charter school city.
The New Orleans Recovery School District has with the end of this school year shuttered its last five remaining traditional public schools, creating the country’s first all-charter school district.
This transformation has delighted corporate education reformers.
But the story of how New Orleans arrived at this point is one not of triumph, but of pain and tragedy, in which the city’s devastation from Hurricane Katrina was exploited to enact a radical program of school privatization.
Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, 10 days after the opening of school. The struggling school district — notorious for its corruption, bureaucratic incompetence and poor academic performance — had just begun a process of reform. The storm brought that process to a halt.
Fact Check: Landau’s contention that the Orleans Parish School Board had begun a process of reform before the storm is totally inaccurate. In the summer of 2005, the district was in a complete state of disarray. In April 2005, former AP reporter Adam Nossiter in fact wrote a dismal assessment of the district entitled, “New Orleans’ School System in Disarray.” If anything, the state decided to take over most of the city’s schools exactly because the district’s previous reform efforts failed.
The city’s system of public education was effectively destroyed, both physically and organizationally. Only 16 of its 128 schools came out of the storm relatively unscathed. Some others were submerged beneath five feet of water or had their roofs torn off; many had to be rebuilt from the ground up.
The human toll was also tremendous. The storm displaced hundreds of thousands, including many families with school-age children. Many people who fled the city at the time of the storm never returned. Prior to Katrina, New Orleans’ public schools enrolled 60,000 students; today that number is 33,000.
Fact Check: Landau’s current enrollment number is way off. As of October of last year, there were almost 44,800 students enrolled in public schools in New Orleans.
Corporate reformers saw in the devastation an opportunity. Noted education historian and policy expert Diane Ravitch described their formula: eliminate public schools, replace with privately managed charters, fire the teachers, replace with Teach for America recruits, eliminate the union.
Shortly after the storm, the Orleans Parish School Board, which was in charge of city schools, fired more than 7,000 unionized school employees, including the entire teaching force. The teachers union lost its collective-bargaining rights. And, the state seized control of the vast majority of the city’s schools and placed them in the state-run Recovery School District, which quickly began to replace existing schools with charters.
Before the storm, there had been just seven charter schools in the city. By the 2007–08 school year, there were 40. In September, all 58 of the schools in New Orleans will be privately run but publicly funded charters whose teachers work without union protections.
Fact Check: Landau gives the impression that the board laid off their teachers immediately after the storm, but the layoffs actually occurred 7 months after the storm, on March 24, 2006.
The decision to layoff teachers was due to the district’s dire financial circumstances. After years of fiscal mismanagement and corruption, OPSB hired Alvarez & Marsal to sift through the district’s finances in the spring of 2005. In a report issued just weeks before the storm, the firm estimated the district would run out of money by September and said:
“The conditions we have found are as bad as any we have ever encountered. The financial data that exists is [sic] unreliable, there has not been a clean audit since FY 2001-2002, there is no inventory of assets, the payroll system is in shambles, school buildings are in deplorable condition and, up to now, there has been little accountability.”
Finally, Landau states, “in September, all 58 of the schools in New Orleans will be privately run but publicly funded charters.” This is nowhere close to accurate. This fall there will be 83 public schools in New Orleans, six of which are traditional district schools overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board.
The teachers who had been fired had to reapply for teaching jobs, and although some veteran teachers were hired back, primarily at the higher-performing schools, the overwhelming number of hires at most schools were young teachers from programs such as Teach for America who had no or little experience and no history of union affiliation.
Larry Carter, the president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, said the decimation of the teachers union was critical for privatization to proceed.
Fact Check: It’s true that the Recovery School District required prospective teachers to formally apply for those positions, including OPSB veterans. Yet in retrospect, this was probably one of the wiser policy decisions made by RSD officials in the hectic months after the storm. As part of the RSD’s screening process, applicants were administered a basic skills test comprised of middle-school ELA and math questions. Half of the applicants failed the test.
Landau’s contention that “the overwhelming number of hires at most schools were young teachers from programs such as Teach For America who had no or little experience” is false. For example, in the 2007-2008 school year, 86% of the teachers working in the RSD were OPSB veterans.
Finally, Brenda Mitchell, Larry Carter’s predecessor as UTNO president, told Ed Week in 2007 that many veteran teachers were simply not interested in teaching for the RSD.
“The model used in New Orleans was to decentralize public education as well as to get rid of the union and get rid of its influence in education and politics,” he said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan celebrated the system’s transformation in a notorious 2010 gaffe: “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”
Fact Check (ok, opinion): Although Landau describes Duncan’s comment as a “gaffe,” some of us who actually worked in New Orleans’ pre-Katrina public schools prefer to describe it as “possibly the most accurate statement ever made by a high-ranking government official.”
The new system has been accused of discrimination on various fronts. A 2010 lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center charging that the new schools fail to meet the needs of disabled students, including in some cases refusing to enroll them, has led to settlement talks between the plaintiffs and schools. And this May, a group of community activists filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that the closure of the city’s traditional public schools and the expansion of its charter sector have disproportionately affected African-American and other minority students.
Fact Check: As I’ve written previously, the Southern Poverty Law Center has a history of stage-managing accusations of wrongdoing at New Orleans charter schools. As for the substance of their complaint, education professor Andre Perry – a frequent critic of the RSD – recently stated:
“I believe the Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly suggests the highly decentralized charter system in New Orleans is a cause for the educational malpractice against students with special needs. Families with children who were in the system before Katrina merely had their balloons of hope popped by unmet expectations. Parents including myself wanted to see more. Unmet expectation around special education is not a post-Katrina phenomenon.”
It’s also not surprising that Landau raises the federal civil rights complaint filed in May by the Journey For Justice Alliance. As I documented in a previous post, UFT’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, played a leading role in drafting the complaint. The complaint is filled with so many illogical errors that Louisiana State Superintendent John White said “The report, from a factual perspective, is a joke.”
On top of the charges of discrimination is evidence that the new, privatized schools perform no better than the public school system before the storm.
Student scores on state tests this spring put New Orleans schools in the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts, just about where they ranked pre-Katrina, said Louisiana educator and researcher Michael Deshotels in an analysis of test results.
The purported success of the transformed system is a “great big fraud,” Deshotels wrote. “After more than eight years of state takeover and conversion of public schools in Louisiana into privately run charter schools, even the most ardent promoters of this radical privatization experiment can no longer hide its spectacular failure.”
Fact Check: As Dawn Roth wrote in an article in the December edition of New Orleans Magazine:
”No matter how many statistics come from the Louisiana Department of Education showing the substantial gains in student achievement in New Orleans schools since 2005, there’s a stubborn knot of naysayers who insist that the stats are the result of a conspiracy by a dishonest government and power-hungry reformers.”
Michael Deshotels is one of these conspiracy theorists. Deshotels and others always fall back on the unsubstantiated assertion there has been an ongoing conspiracy to manipulate the RSD’s performance results. In short, although NSA couldn’t keep their domestic spying programs secret for 10 years, Deshotels & Co. would have us believe that the bureaucrats at Louisiana Department of Education have been able to keep their data manipulation efforts under wraps for nearly a decade. The whole idea would be laughable if not for the fact that these conspiracy theorists actually believe their assertions.
In reality, New Orleans’ public schools have vastly improved since Hurricane Katrina. Here are just a few of the statistics documenting the progress since 2005:
- The average school performance score has risen by 41%, in spite of the fact that 84% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch
- The high school graduation rate increased from 54% to 78%, which now surpasses the Louisiana rate of 71%
- The percentage of high school seniors eligible for TOPS scholarships (free or subsidized in-state college tuition) rose from 25% to 39%, approaching the state average of 43%
- The percentage of 8th graders performing on grade level in Math and English rose from 28% to 67%, just one point shy of the state average of 68%
- The performance of special education students in New Orleans now outperforms the state average for students with special needs
- New Orleans has achieved these gains while maintaining an expulsion rate lower than the state average
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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