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.
As 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.
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.”
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.
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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