The expression “market-based reform” (or some variation thereof) gets thrown about by folks on both sides of the education reform debate. Opponents use it as a term of derision, intended to describe what they feel is an impersonal, metrics-obsessed approach to teaching and learning. Among supporters, it has a positive connotation, with advocates incessantly touting the benefits of “competition” and “school choice.” Furthermore, for both sides, the Recovery School District (RSD) represents either the shining star or “cautionary tale” of so-called “market-based reform” efforts.
Case-in-point: Claudio Sanchez’s second piece on the RSD that aired on NPR’s All Things Considered last week.1 In his report, Sanchez speaks with the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg who describes the reforms in New Orleans this way:
“My reading of the evidence is that it’s been overblown. There’s still substantial numbers of schools that struggle in New Orleans…We’ve had corporate reformers come into the public system and impose this market-based model.”
Sanchez also interviews John Ayers, Executive Director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. 2 Ayers doesn’t agree with Kahlenberg’s pessimistic assessment of the RSD, but he does use the same language to describe it: “We’re the only city that has created the first true market in public education, and by no means a perfect market, but listen, it’s unique.”
The problem is the RSD doesn’t actually resemble a market in any meaningful sense. Contrary to the rhetoric, the RSD’s success in New Orleans has more to do with strong accountability and collaboration than Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Proponents and critics alike mischaracterize the RSD – and current reform trends, more generally – when they portray them as a market-driven approach to public education.
Below are five reasons why the RSD isn’t a market-based model:
I. There are high “barriers to entry” for charter school operators.
One of the myths about the RSD is that the state swept in and quickly converted the city’s traditional schools into charter schools. In reality, the RSD has taken a long and plodding path to becoming the nation’s first all-charter district. Long-time reform advocate Leslie Jacobs emphasized this in an interview with John Merrow:
“It’s not that charters, in and of themselves, are great schools, but we’ve done chartering well in New Orleans…As I say, you can do it ‘fast failing or a slow success.’ It’s been very much looking for those high quality charter operators and chartering very slowly.”
From the beginning, the state set a high bar for charter applicants by using a third party – originally, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) – to establish criteria, vet proposals, and make recommendations. Bringing in NACSA also helped insulate the process from politics, ensuring that only the most qualified applicants were sent before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) for approval. In 2006, the year after the storm, BESE received 44 applications to open charter schools in New Orleans; only six were approved. Since that time, the RSD has added, on average, only about five charter schools per year.
Of course, not all states take as rigorous an approach to charter authorizing as Louisiana, which helps explain the wide variation in charter school performance seen across the country. As NACSA’s Greg Richmond wrote:
“States with the best charter school performance are those with good authorizers who have maintained high standards and have closed failing schools. See New York, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. The lowest-quality states have been those with authorizers who have had low standards. See Texas, Ohio, and others.”
The point here is that bad charter policies beget bad charter schools. The wide variance in charter school performance nationally is not an inevitable by-product of market forces. States like Ohio (especially Ohio) can and should revise their policies to set a higher bar for applicants and hold schools accountable for results.
II. Competition doesn’t force low-performing charter schools out of the “marketplace” – government intervention does.
This is where free-marketers’ faith in the ideal of Homo Economicus – i.e., that human beings act “rationally” in their own best interests – runs headlong into the wall of reality. The RSD’s experience in New Orleans illustrates (and studies elsewhere have confirmed) that families don’t always make the choices one would expect when choosing a school.
For example, when Benjamin Mays Preparatory School was closed by the RSD at the end of the 2012-13 school year, the school still had an enrollment of approximately 360 students. Although the school’s grade remained an “F” over the course of three years, enrollment at the school remained relatively stable – i.e., most families didn’t respond to low performance by pulling out their children, as one might have expected.3
In fact, while over a dozen RSD charters have closed over the past nine years, there’s only been a few examples – such as New Orleans Free Academy – where a school voluntarily gave up its charter due to low enrollment. In nearly every other case, charter school closures have been the result of government intervention (i.e., by BESE rescinding a charter on the recommendation of the RSD) for persistent low performance.
III. The evolution of the RSD toward an all-charter district has been marked by greater oversight of and collaboration among schools.
Early on, policymakers and reform advocates recognized that the RSD needed to maintain some measure of coordination and oversight authority over schools as it transitioned to an all-charter system. The challenge facing RSD officials was to establish structures that provided a fair and equitable system for families, while respecting the autonomy that allows charter schools to thrive.
In terms of oversight, the RSD and Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) created the Louisiana Charter School Performance Compact. It outlines a lengthy list of academic, financial, and organizational criteria with which to gauge charter performance, as well as a timeline of state reporting deadlines that schools must meet in order to remain in good standing. At the end of each school year, each charter is scored on the criteria based on data from various sources, including a school visit by LDOE/RSD officials.
In an effort to provide fair and equal access to schools, officials created OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system managed by the RSD. Families seeking to enroll their children in the RSD fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. This past year, 80% of families received one of their top three preferences. The RSD also established a district-wide expulsion hearing system to ensure that students are not unfairly pushed out of schools.
That’s not to say that these things were simply imposed on charter schools from on high. As State Superintendent John White and his deputy Adam Hawf wrote in an essay on the lessons of the RSD, “Many of our most important policy changes, including the decision to centralize the expulsion process, have come directly from charter school leaders in New Orleans.” In fact, charter schools and community organizations have been the driving force behind several collaborative efforts in the district. Here are just a few examples:
- The Louisiana Special Education Cooperative was launched in 2008 to promote and support the delivery of meaningful special education services in the city’s charter schools.
- New Schools for New Orleans organizes school reviews where teams of school leaders from across the city conduct evaluations of charters to provide them with critical feedback on how to improve.
- More than a dozen of the city’s charter networks and non-profit organizations came together to form the Healthy School Food Collaborative which serves an umbrella School Food Authority focused on providing healthy school meals to students.
IV. However, the RSD’s takeover has created a market for talented teachers, administrators, and support staff.
The one area where competition does come into play is staff recruitment. The city’s charter schools invest a significant amount of time and resources into attracting talented teachers and administrators to work in their schools. Many charters involve their staff members in the selection process to ensure prospective employees are a good “fit” for the school community. And, because the RSD holds charters accountable for results, they have a vested interest in recruiting individuals with a proven track record of performance.
This is a marked departure from the pre-Katrina era, when placement decisions were made centrally, in accordance with seniority rules and job protections set forth in the union contract. Outside of a few well-connected principals who could pull strings to influence these decisions, placements were made with little input from either side of the equation and without regard to performance. This often led to a “a dance of the lemons,” where ineffective teachers and administrators were cycled through vacancies, more often than not landing in the highest-need schools. It also made it difficult for principals to build the strong cohesive teams needed to turnaround the district’s lowest performing schools.
V. Characterizing the transformation of New Orleans’ school system as “market-based reform” ignores the motivations of those involved.
It’s hard to take Richard Kahlenberg seriously when he makes a statement like, “We’ve had corporate reformers come into the public system and impose this market-based model.” In the 12 years I’ve been involved in education in New Orleans, I’ve yet to encounter these “corporate reformers” that Kahlenberg and his fellow critics so often speak about. The educators working in charters don’t drive to and from school in convertible BMWs. Charter boards don’t convene to plot hostile takeovers of rival schools. And when charter schools post high test scores, their teachers don’t see a jump in the value of their stock options.
On the other hand, I have encountered a lot of educators who work hard each day because they want to provide their students with the education they deserve. In this cynical age, it may be hard to conceive that folks could be motivated by ideals rather than profit, but in New Orleans that’s the case.
- After calling out the error in Sanchez’s first piece on the RSD, I would be remiss if I didn’t state that this report went off without a hitch. ↩
- Irony Alert: John Ayers is the brother of Bill Ayers, former Sixties radical and current education reform opponent. ↩
- Actually, a group of school and community members fought (in vain) to keep Mays open, in spite of its poor track record. ↩
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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