In the past few years, Georgia State University professor Kristen Buras1 has tried to make a name for herself by bashing the progress made in New Orleans’ public school system since Hurricane Katrina. She recently reached a new low with an article she wrote for The Progressive entitled, “Charter Schools Flood New Orleans.”
For those of us who have been involved in the post-Katrina transformation of New Orleans’ public school system, the claims in Buras’ article are so far removed from reality that one must question the underlying motivations of the author and her editors at The Progressive. To illustrate this fact, I’ve reproduced the article below and highlighted the factual inaccuracies and misleading statements Buras makes in the course of the piece.
By KRISTEN BURAS on December 26, 2014
Within days of Hurricane Katrina, the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated the creation of a “Gulf Opportunity Zone,” including federal funds for charter schools and entrepreneurs. Slowly but surely, the narrative of disaster turned to one of opportunity, even triumph. We were told that families abandoned in the storm were finding new hope in transformation of the city’s public schools by charter school operators.
Report after report praised New Orleans as a model for urban school districts across the nation. Charter school operators, most of them white, declared “school choice” to be the new civil rights movement.
Now, almost a decade later, New Orleans is the nation’s first all-charter school district. Charter advocates describe the district’s achievements as nothing short of a miracle.
The truth is quite different: Flooding New Orleans with charter schools has been disastrous.I was born and raised in New Orleans and have been studying education reform there for the last decade. One black veteran teacher told me what transpired in the wake of the storm. Policymakers declared, “You no longer have jobs. The local district no longer exists. We’re going to split it up, make some charters. The state’s going to take control of everything.”
During an exchange with one state legislator, this teacher asked how the legislature could take such drastic action without public input. The legislator’s response was brutally candid: “We called up a few people that we knew were back in town and invited them over to my house, and we sat down and began to dismantle the district.” Justifiably angered, the teacher responded, “These are the kinds of underhanded tactics that were going on while our schoolchildren were still floating in the waters of Katrina.”
In November 2005, barely two months after Katrina, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco called a special legislative session. This was the occasion for passing Act 35, which changed the definition of a “failing” school from a performance score of 60 (on a scale of 200) to 87.4, just below the state average. This allowed the state-run Recovery School District to assume control of 107 of 128 public schools in Orleans Parish, enabling charter expansion on a scale never before attempted in Louisiana or elsewhere. It was the ultimate public private partnership—state officials serving the interests of private businesses rather than local communities, especially communities of color.
Although a state law, Act 35 specifically targeted the majority-black Orleans Parish. Before its passage, state officials crunched numbers in Baton Rouge to determine the school performance score cut-point and district size that would enable mass takeover only in New Orleans. Act 35 stipulated the Recovery School District could not assume control of failing schools in districts with fewer than thirty schools; fifty of sixty-four districts in Louisiana have fewer than thirty schools.Among the remaining districts, the state took over and chartered failing schools only in New Orleans immediately after Katrina.
The fact is, white policymakers and education entrepreneurs were hell-bent on chartering New Orleans public schools, populated almost entirely by black students and unionized black veteran teachers. The Orleans Parish School Board had an operating budget of approximately $400 million in 2005-06—hardly chump change. Most of these monies would be allocated to the state-run Recovery School District and privately operated charter schools, with only a handful of traditional public schools remaining under the locally elected board.
Not unlike the French Quarter, the city’s public schools would become a playground for outsiders—only instead of spending money, education entrepreneurs would pocket it.In late 2005, officials announced that all public school employees in Orleans Parish would be fired. That’s right—all! There was no due process, no consideration for veteran teachers’ hard work or lifetime of accrued benefits, much less the collective bargaining agreement of United Teachers of New Orleans. The state claimed there was a teacher shortage, and the Louisiana Department of Education advertised nationwide for positions in the Recovery School District.
Reflecting on this, one longtime teacher asserted, “It’s all about the dollars. Our rights as teachers have been trampled upon. Reformers say they are revamping the schools. They get rid of everyone, and they rehire whoever they want. In many cases, they replace veteran teachers with first, second, and third year teachers.”
This kind of cost-cutting is done at the expense of black children, taught by people with little experience or connection to the community. In fact, former Recovery School District superintendent Paul Vallas explained to BBC News in 2010: “I don’t want the majority of my teaching staff to work more than ten years. The cost of sustaining those individuals becomes so enormous. Between retirement and health care, it means that you are constantly increasing class sizes and cutting programs to sustain the cost of a veteran workforce.”
With Teach For America and other “human capital” providers in place, there would be no such worry. Most Teach For America recruits don’t teach for longer than two or three years, and charter school employees are rarely unionized.
Truth be told, Teach For America is a teacher-union-busting machine, and a best friend of charter school operators, who care less about the teaching qualifications of those placed in classrooms and more about their bottom line. In 2005, only 10 percent of New Orleans’ teachers were in their first or second year of teaching. Three years later, 33 percent were. In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of the city’s teachers had been teaching for three years or less, and the percentage of white teachers had nearly doubled.
It is difficult to imagine that well-paid white charter school operators would send their own kids to schools where so many of the teaching staff have never held a teaching position before.
I remember seeing a video produced by an edu-business consulting group in New Orleans. It showed typical scenes from the French Quarter, where twenty-somethings share how much they love the food, weather, and bands. One young white newcomer explains she taught ninth-grade math and is now CEO of a start-up company that sells data management software to schools. The line between tourist, teacher, and profiteer is thin indeed.With the autonomy to virtually do whatever they please, charter schools ought to have high performance delivered, you might think. After all, advocates of free-market school reform assert that government bureaucracy and interference undermine urban public schools. But the performance of charter schools in the Recovery School District is dismal. In 2011, the state began issuing letter grades. All of the state-run Recovery School District schools received a “D” or “F” and 79 percent of charter schools in the district received a “D” or “F.” In 2014, RSD-New Orleans is still performing below the vast majority of the state’s other districts at the fourth and eighth grades in subjects tested by the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, including English language arts, math, and science. Charles Hatfield, a statistician with Research on Reforms, a New Orleans-based watchdog group, has been analyzing school performance data since 2005, he says. Results in the “newly reformed” schools of New Orleans have been perpetually disappointing.
There was a public hearing in 2010 on whether or not New Orleans’ schools would be returned to local control or remain under the Recovery School District. Hundreds of people from the city’s African American community attended the hearing, with anti-RSD protest signs dotting the audience.
A respected community activist took the microphone: “What we’re talking about here tonight is a simple question of democracy. We want in Orleans Parish what every other parish has in this state and that’s the right to control our own schools. High crimes and misdemeanors have been carried out by the RSD and the people who run these charter operations. We don’t believe that these schools have served the best interests of African American students.”
A veteran of the city’s civil rights movement also spoke, reminding everyone that an earlier generation of activists “went to jail and died for us to have the right to vote for who we want to represent us.” She concluded her comment by pointing to Paul Vallas, underscoring that he was never elected but oversaw most schools in Orleans Parish.
The feeling of disenfranchisement was palpable that evening. But afterwards unelected charter school board members were given the right to determine whether or not schools remained under the Recovery School District. Not surprisingly, almost every charter school did.That’s the name of the game when it comes to charter school reform: disempowering the locally elected school board and communities, while consolidating power and money in the hands of unelected and unaccountable private operators.
Charter school expansion in New Orleans has generated a host of lawsuits. Veteran teachers lodged a wrongful termination suit. Two lower courts ruled in favor of the teachers, but the Louisiana Supreme Court recently overturned those rulings. The case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Approximately 4,500 students with disabilities assert that they have been denied access and/or appropriate services by public schools in New Orleans, the majority of them charters. This case remains under way, with reports that violations have worsened rather than being resolved since its initiation. Why would profit-hungry school operators embrace those children? They’re expensive and could compromise performance of the “business.”
A civil rights complaint against Collegiate Academies, a private charter operator in New Orleans, asserts that its schools are based on “a harsh and punitive discipline culture” that “endangers the safety and welfare of students, violates students’ rights under state and federal laws, pushes students out for minor infractions, and ultimately deprives students a right to education guaranteed by the Louisiana Constitution.”Collegiate Academies has one of the highest out-of-school suspension rates in the city. One of the high schools it operates suspends almost 70 percent of its students. On behalf of students and parents, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law filed a complaint against three charter schools operated by Collegiate Academics. It alleges “out of control suspension practices for trivial matters,” “failure to report injuries to parents,” and “bullying and harassment of children with special needs,” among others.
Even when charter schools fail, charter school operators are paid executive-level six-figure salaries. The CEO of Future Is Now, a charter operator in New Orleans, was paid a salary of $250,000 when John McDonogh High School, seized by Future Is Now despite community resistance, posted a performance score of 9.3 on a scale of 150. Call me crazy, but I don’t think that taxpayers received their money’s worth.In 2012, students from various historic high schools in New Orleans that had been taken over and chartered issued a list of demands to the Recovery School District.
“A lot of money has come to New Orleans for education reform,” they protested, “but none of it benefits the children.”
“People are making a lot of money on the backs of poor black children in New Orleans,” they continued, “We want resources for our schools. We do not want to line the pockets of other people.”
Kristen Buras is an associate professor in educational policy studies at Georgia State University. She is the author of Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. She is also director and co-founder of the New Orleans-based Urban South Grassroots Research Collective for Public Education. To reach her, or to get a discount code for her book, contact [email protected]
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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