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Stop Saying Market-Based Reform. Please.



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.”

Richard Kahlenberg (left) and John Ayers might have different takes on the RSD, but they both mischaracterize it as a market-based approach.

Richard Kahlenberg (left) and John Ayers might have different takes on the RSD, but they both mischaracterize it as a market-based approach.

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.

NACSA helped set a high bar for charter applicants.

NACSA helped set a high bar for charter applicants.

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.

"Market-based reform" may be a great catchphrase, but it doesn't describe reforms like those in the RSD.

“Market-based reform” might be a great catchphrase, but it doesn’t describe reforms like those in the RSD.

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.

Families seeking to enroll their children in the RSD fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference.

Families seeking to enroll their children in the RSD fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference.

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.
The La. Special Education Cooperative and the Healthy School Food Collaborative are two examples of RSD charters working together.

The La. Special Education Cooperative and the Healthy School Food Collaborative are two examples of RSD charters working together.

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. Irony Alert: John Ayers is the brother of Bill Ayers, former Sixties radical and current education reform opponent
  3. Actually, a group of school and community members fought (in vain) to keep Mays open, in spite of its poor track record. 

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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NoMore ShrubsTobey Steevesphillip cantorPeter C. CookTravis Pillow Recent comment authors
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Tobey Steeves

Right, @petercook: NOLA is widely analyzed as a petri dish for privatization – part of a systematic attack on public education. Tragic. -.-

NoMore Shrubs

@symphily Hell yes they do. Thanks to DFER & Gates, now WA State has to endure # charterfraud too. @petercook @phillipcantor

Tobey Steeves

Ironic, @petercook! Doesn’t #DFER push charter schools? There’s profit there, right? Hedge fund managers smell lucre? || @phillipcantor

Peter C. Cook

@phillipcantor Translation: tdlr & because I said so.

phillip cantor

.@petercook TFA and DFER both support market based reforms. Reform via “School Choice” is market based. Saying otherwise is disingenuous.

Travis Pillow

RT @petercook: Actually, the government does step into intervene and promote the collective good here in #NOLAed:

Education Research Annoyances In New Orleans | PE + CO

The Education Research Alliance (ERA) at Tulane University released a new study last week that attempted to gauge how New Orleans principals responded to competition in the city’s supposedly “market-based” public education system.The report – “How Do School Leaders Respond To Competition?” – was authored by Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Texas at Austin and research associate at ERA. For background, the study [see full report below] is based on a series of interviews she conducted during the 2012-13 school year with school leaders of 30 (out of 90) New Orleans public schools from both the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and Recovery School District (RSD).While the report generated a lot of attention, here are three questions raised by recent study…I. Why Did ERA Leave Out The Full Story?First, let’s address the finding that grabbed all the headlines:

“One-third (10 of 30) of schools selected or excluded students by, for example, counseling students who were not thought to be a good fit to transfer to another school, holding invitation-only events to advertise the school, or not reporting open seats. This number included five OPSB schools and five RSD schools.”

The timing of Jabbar’s interviews is important, because S.Y. 2012-13 marked the first year of OneApp, the city-wide enrollment system managed by the RSD. OneApp was created to simplify the enrollment process by allowing parents to fill out only one application in which they rank schools in order of preference. OneApp then centrally assigns students to each school using a complex algorithm that takes into account those preferences, as well as other factors.Graphic from the Cowen InstituteAs a result, the advent of OneApp took the enrollment process out of the hands of schools, preventing them from engaging in exactly the types of exclusionary practices mentioned in ERA’s report. For example, because all OneApp schools are linked to a Student Information System managed by the RSD, the district knows exactly how many openings exist at each school and when students are dropped or added to the rolls. Therefore, schools are unable to game the system by underreporting open seats, or illegally dropping students from the rolls.In addition, there is a very short window for student transfers at the beginning of each school year. After October 1st, students must be approved for a hardship exemption in order to transfer out of their OneApp placement, preventing schools from “counseling out” students. In S.Y. 2013-14, only 156 students transferred during the school year.Given the concerns raised about possible “creaming” of students by school leaders, one would expect that ERA’s report would take pains to show how dramatically the enrollment process has changed in the intervening three years. In fact, I know that at least one peer-reviewer of the study explicitly and repeatedly urged ERA to provide added context about the changes introduced by OneApp.The advent of OneApp, a centralized enrollment process, helps ensure schools can’t game the system.Nevertheless, if anything, ERA seemed to downplay the fact that OneApp has made the report’s selection/retention concerns irrelevant. The study’s conclusions are, at times, presented in a way that could leave readers (especially those outside of New Orleans) under the impression that school leaders continue to manipulate enrollment, such as this quote from the policy brief released with the study:

“Without more efforts to manage the current responses to competition like student selection and exclusion, New Orleans could end up with a less equitable school system.”

Furthermore, even when OneApp is mentioned by Jabbar, it’s buried in the report and the efficacy of the system is left an open question:

“For example, central assignment programs, such as OneApp, may help to reduce inequities in access by retaining some central authority over assignment, rather than leaving admissions and lotteries entirely to schools, and removing opportunities to screen and select students.”

Leaving out such an important part of the story is not only misleading to readers, but unfair to educators in New Orleans, especially after ERA was urged to provide a fuller picture about OneApp.II. Where’s The Beef?After all of the buildup and fanfare surrounding the release of the Alliance’s past two studies, one might expect the research to be revelatory. But, with all due respect to the folks at ERA, the studies they’ve released thus far have done little more than confirm what we already knew.ERA’s first report, “What Schools Do Families Want (And Why)?,” found that New Orleans families gave significant weight to factors beyond academic performance when choosing a school. On the other hand, numerous studies of families’ school choice decisions – in New York City, Canada, Beijing, the Midwest, etc. – have basically found the same behavior.Likewise, Jabbar’s revelation that some school leaders tried to select or exclude students isn’t really news. After all, concern that some New Orleans schools were gaming the student enrollment process was part of the impetus behind creating OneApp in the first place.In some ways, the rollouts of ERA’s first two reports seem geared toward maximizing attention for the nascent research group than providing a deeper understanding of the transformation of New Orleans’ public schools. The approach seems to be working: ERA’s studies have received garnered a lot of media visibility and ERA’s Director, Doug Harris, just launched a new blog in partnership with Ed Week.The desire to make a splash is understandable – what’s the point of producing research if no one pays attention to it? However, the absence of context about OneApp, along with some of the more provocative quotes in the latest policy brief (example: “We all want our [student]
numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.
“) no doubt distort readers’ view of the public education landscape in New Orleans.III. Why Does ERA Insist New Orleans is a “Market-Based” School System?I’ve said it. CREDO Director Margaret Raymond has said it. “Market-based reform” is not an accurate description for the type of transformation that has taken place in New Orleans’ public education system since Hurricane Katrina.It’s true that some charter school advocates – in particular, think tankers on the free market-end of the spectrum – want to portray NOLA’s charter school system as a marketplace where improvement is driven by competition. But, as Michael Stone, co-CEO at New Schools for New Orleans, told The Advocate, “I don’t think I know a single person working in public education in New Orleans who would say that competition for students will drive quality.”Michael Stone asks early-19th Century English ladies whether they think competition between schools improves performance.That point seems lost on the folks at ERA, whose research presents New Orleans as the ne plus ultra of a market model. For example, in ERA’s “What Schools Do Families Want (And Why)?,” authors Doug Harris and Matt Larson insist, “no city had ever adopted a comprehensive market school system until New Orleans did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.” Similarly, in her policy brief on “How Do School Leaders Respond To Competition?,” Huriya Jabbar contends:

”The New Orleans school-choice market, consisting overwhelmingly of open-enrollment charter schools, is arguably the most competitive district ever created in the United States.”

But is it? OneApp offers parents what should be more accurately described as school preference, rather than school choice. Plus, families’ ability to switch schools is limited with the short transfer period. On the the other side of the equation, individual schools can’t simply increase “supply” (i.e., add more seats) to meet demand from parents, given the practical constraints imposed by facilities and staffing.Furthermore, the RSD’s evolution towards an all-charter district has been guided by a master plan based on enrollment projections and geographical need. At this point, there are few opportunities for charter growth in New Orleans and CMOs have turned their attention to other districts, like Baton Rouge and Memphis, when seeking to expand. Finally, as I’ve noted previously, when schools have closed, it has almost always been a result of accountability policies, rather than under-enrollment due to competition from other schools.It’s time to move beyond the traditional vs. market-based labels and acknowledge that New Orleans’ public school system is an altogether different animal.View this document on ScribdEducation Research Annoyances In New Orleans</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">Three Questions Raised By ERA’s Latest Study On Competition Among NOLA Schools</span>’,url: ‘’,contentID: ‘post-4015’,signature: ‘Thanks for reading PE+CO. You can also find me online at http://lalegeeducation.xom,, and as always at’,suggestTags: ‘Douglas Harris,edreform,Education reform,Education Research Alliance,ERA,Hurricane Katrina,market-based reform,New Orleans,New Orleans Public Schools,Recovery School District,RSD,Tulane’,providerName: ‘PE + CO’,styling: ‘full’ });return false”>  Share This Post: FacebookTwitterPocketLinkedInRedditTumblrGoogle+DiggStumbleUponEmailPrint function essb_window1038632065(oUrl,oService){essb_window_stat(oUrl,oService,4015);essb_ga_tracking(oService,”bottom”,””);};function essb_pinterenst1038632065(){essb_ga_tracking(“pinterest”,”bottom”,””);essb_pinterenst_stat(4015);};FacebookTwitterPocketEmail function essb_window795374363(oUrl,oService){essb_window_stat(oUrl,oService,4015);essb_ga_tracking(oService,”postfloat”,””);};function essb_pinterenst795374363(){essb_ga_tracking(“pinterest”,”postfloat”,””);essb_pinterenst_stat(4015);};Related

Cowen Institute Adds Insult To Injury [Updated: 1/16/15] | PE + CO

UPDATE – 1/16/15:
Matt Bailey responded to this post in the comments, which in the interest of fairness, deserves top billing:

“My comments were ill-informed and incorrect. I made them at a time when I did not fully understand the charter school movement in the context of the landscape of public education in New Orleans. As interim executive director of the Cowen Institute my job is to be a neutral, unbiased member of an institute devoted to objectively studying the transformation of public education in New Orleans (which includes both traditional and charter schools) and to help foster a better and more inclusive public education system for the city’s youth.”

It’s been a rough couple of months for Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.
Back in October, the Cowen Institute suffered a major embarrassment when it retracted a widely-cited report, “Beating the Odds: Academic Performance and Vulnerable Student Populations in New Orleans Public High Schools.” In a statement announcing the retraction, Executive Director John Ayers explained, “officials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate.” How exactly the methodology was flawed was never made clear.
A little more than a month later, John Ayers resigned his post as Executive Director of the Cowen Institute. Although Ayers claimed he was leaving “on good terms,” the fallout from the retraction – the first in the organization’s history – no doubt contributed to his departure.
So then what did Tulane do at a time when it desperately needed to rebuild the Cowen Institute’s credibility in the eyes of the public? It appointed Matt Bailey, an outspoken education reform critic who once confidently predicted “the demise of Nola’s market-based charter school model,” as Interim Executive Director of the organization [insert head smack here].
Tulane replaced former Executive Director John Ayers (left) with Matt Bailey, an outspoken education reform critic.Tulane’s inexplicable decision should be a cause for concern among reform supporters in this city – and not because of Bailey’s clearly deficient soothsaying skills. As we near the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the eyes of the nation (and indeed the world) are looking to New Orleans for the lessons from our rebuilding efforts, and especially from the transformation of our public schools.
But here’s the thing: Matt Bailey doesn’t believe that charter schools are public schools.

In fact, he believes that charter schools are just a “backdoor way” of privatizing public education.

He also believes that the systems that we’ve created to ensure fair and equal access to schools are a sham.

He’s called a local organization that supports school choice an “Astroturf conservative group funded by billionaires.”

Speaking of school choice, Bailey doesn’t believe that the low-income families our charter schools serve have the ability to make the right choices for their children.

In fact, his thoughts on school choice seem to be influenced by some pretty unflattering and unfair stereotypes about poor families.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we jettisoned our long broken school system and set about creating a new public education model, and tens of thousands of children in New Orleans are receiving a better education today because of it.
Matt Bailey is opposed to those reforms, and in this important year for our city, when people come to New Orleans to gauge the progress in our public schools, they should be able to turn to the Cowen Institute for a honest, unbiased assessment.
Cowen Institute Adds Insult To Injury [Updated: 1/16/15]</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">Tulane Names Outspoken Education Reform Critic As Interim Executive Director</span>’,url: ‘’,contentID: ‘post-3536’,suggestTags: ‘Charter Schools,Cowen Institute,edreform,Education reform,Matt Bailey,Recovery School District,RSD’,providerName: ‘PE + CO’,styling: ‘full’ });return false”>  
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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:

Red Flags Everywhere | PE + CO

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.

Smothers Academy CEO Damon Smothers (left) is being sued by his brother Kemic (right), who previously served as the school’s legal counsel and director of procurement.

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:

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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:

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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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana
Unapologetic Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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