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This is NPR: Negatively Portraying Reform?

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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.

NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez

NPR’s education correspondent Claudio Sanchez

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.

To their credit, NPR posted a correction on the story's webpage regarding the charter school grades.

To their credit, NPR posted a correction on the story’s webpage regarding the charter school grades.

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

NPR’s Ethics Handbook includes an “Accuracy Checklist” with a bulleted series of “questions to ask before you call any story complete.” One of them is the following:

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.

Sanchez mention that David Cash is a member of the Executive Council of the United Teachers of New Orleans.

Sanchez doesn’t mention that David Cash is a member of the Executive Council of the United Teachers of New Orleans.

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.

Davina Allen, who has been involved in anti-TFA organizing, is hardly representative of the city's Teach For America corps members and alumni.

Davina Allen, who has been involved in anti-TFA organizing, is hardly representative of the city’s Teach For America corps members and alumni.

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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

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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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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