For most of New Orleans’ 45,000 public school students, Monday marked the first day of a new school year and NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez was in town reporting for a new series of nprEd Team stories focusing on the city’s school reform efforts since Hurricane Katrina.
When I initially heard NPR was planning to focus on our city’s schools, I considered it a good thing. On the whole, I’ve found NPR’s coverage of education issues to be fair and balanced, and therefore saw the series as an opportunity to dispel some of the myths and misinformation out there about New Orleans’ education reform efforts. Unfortunately, my optimism evaporated after hearing Sanchez’s story – “New Orleans Charters Prepare For A Big First Day Of School” – on Tuesday’s edition of All Things Considered.
If you missed Claudio Sanchez’s report on New Orleans charter schools, you can listen to the story above. Below, I outline my three main reactions to the story, including how reporting on New Orleans schools becomes a casualty in the broader war over education reform.
First Things First: Get the Facts Straight
The most egregious error in Sanchez’s story concerns the performance of charter schools in the Recovery School District (RSD). At one point, he claims that “80 percent of the district’s charter schools are D and F schools – among the worst in Louisiana.”
As Danielle Dreilinger at the Times-Picayune quickly pointed out, Sanchez’s numbers were flat-out wrong. Last year, 54% of RSD charters were graded B/C, 21% were graded D/F, and 25% were not issued a grade because they were newly opened schools.
After several listeners brought attention to the error on npr.org, as well as on Twitter, NPR posted a correction on the story’s webpage on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Melissa Block issued an on-air correction and apology for the mistake.
Later in the piece, Sanchez turns to David Cash, a veteran teacher at McDonogh #35 High School, who opposes charters. Cash says the claim that parents have choice in the post-Katrina school system is “an illusion” and is quoted as saying, “Parents are putting down first, second and third choices – they’re not getting them.”
Of course, Cash is referring to the school preference list parents fill out on OneApp, the RSD-run, city-wide system designed to ensure the enrollment process is fair and equitable for all families. Of the 11,000 students who applied to schools through OneApp earlier this year, over 80% received one of their top three choices. So in fact, most parents are getting one of the their top school choices, but listeners wouldn’t know it because Sanchez never challenges the veracity of Cash’s statement.
Be Wary of Affiliations/Conflicts of Sources
Do I need to check a source’s “fact” against what others are saying? Advocates can skew things in their favor.
I raise this because while Sanchez notes that “Cash has lived in New Orleans for 21 years and taught in both charter schools and a traditional public school,” he leaves out an important element of Cash’s résumé: he serves 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 recent attempts to malign the RSD’s efforts in New Orleans, including the filing of a specious civil rights complaint in May.
Interestingly enough, Davina Allen, the other reform critic Sanchez interviews for his story, also plays a leading role in the local teachers union. Although we’re told Allen is a physics teacher at a local high school, it’s never mentioned that she also serves as Vice President of Professional Development for UTNO.
On the other hand, Sanchez does point out that,
“Allen was one of hundreds of teachers recruited by Teach For America – young men and women who arrived with high hopes of not just rebuilding, but improving the city schools – a task that even charter supporters like Kenneth Campbell can see is far from complete.”
Sanchez’s comment leaves one with the impression that the high hopes of those Teach For America corps members were later dashed when confronted with the challenges in New Orleans’ schools. And, perhaps that was the impression he got from Allen, who has recently been involved in organizing efforts against TFA.
However, it should be noted that Allen’s perspective is hardly representative of those of us who have worked in New Orleans’ schools through Teach For America.2 In fact, TFA corps members and alumni have played – and continue to play – leading roles in both rebuilding and improving the city’s schools.
New Orleans as Proxy in the War Over Education
Since this piece aired, I was told by someone who spoke with Sanchez that he was “deeply chagrined” by the “80% D or F” error regarding charter school performance. And to be clear, I don’t have the impression that Sanchez is proactively trying to portray New Orleans’ post-Katrina reforms in a negative light.
However, Sanchez’s piece demonstrates why some in the city’s education reform community have developed a sense of “journalism fatigue.” I say this because New Orleans tends to serve as a proxy in the broader war over the direction of public education policy in this country. Often, journalists fly in and build their stories around the loudest, most extreme voices in the debate, folks who apply their preconceived notions and ideologies to the New Orleans context. There have also been plenty of examples of less scrupulous “journalists” who distort New Orleans’ story to further their political agendas. What’s more, the perspectives of those most impacted by the city’s reforms – i.e., public school students and parents – are seldom solicited, nonetheless heard in the reporting. As a result, national coverage of the city’s schools rarely manages to step back from the debate and objectively assess what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what still needs to be done.3
New Orleans’ education reform path over the past decade is complex and – like the city itself – uniquely its own. The question of whether NPR’s coverage of New Orleans schools will be able to reflect that reality is yet to be seen.
- Another element that isn’t noted is that Cash taught at G.W. Carver High School until it was phased out to make way for George Washington Carver Collegiate, the same charter school that is featured at the beginning of the story. ↩
- Full Disclosure: I was a 2002 TFA corps member in New Orleans and served as Davina Allen’s Program Director while on staff at Teach For America – Greater New Orleans. ↩
- One journalist who has generally done a good job at providing an honest, nuanced picture of the city’s reform efforts over the years is John Merrow and his team at Learning Matters. ↩
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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