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Fact-Checking UFT’s Attack on NOLA Schools

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The United Federation of Teachers recently published a totally inaccurate piece on New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms.

The United Federation of Teachers recently published a totally inaccurate piece on New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms.

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.

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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

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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This Article was mentioned on peterccook.com

Neith08
Neith08

Where did you get those graduation rates for New Orleans for 2005?

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[…] context. There have also been plenty of examples of less scrupulous “journalists” who distort New Orleans’ story to further their political agendas. Furthermore, the perspectives of those most impacted by the […]

Robert Evans
Robert Evans

Fantastic article Peter. You are always right on spot. I would like to meet you sometime.

All best
Robbie Evans

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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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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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