The question of whether eligible Recovery School District (RSD) charters should be returned to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, thanks to House Bill 166, a proposal from Rep. Joseph Bouie, which would have forced eligible RSD charters to return to OPSB within a year. Current law allows the board of directors of eligible charter schools to decide whether to return to OPSB.
Although House Bill 166 met its demise on the House floor on a vote of 31-62, thanks in large part to the efforts of New Orleans lawmaker Rep. Neil Abramson, Bouie’s proposal revived the long-smoldering debate about if, when, and how schools taken over by RSD should return to local control. Most notably, education commentators Andre Perry and Chris Stewart took to their blogs to debate whether schools were ready to return. Their exchange can be summed up as follows:
- PERRY: “Schools can return to local control if we put our minds to it!”
- STEWART: “Are you kidding? OPSB is a hot mess [lists several major problems]. They’re not ready.”
- PERRY: “Schools can return to local control if we put our minds to it! Don’t drink the haterade!”
- STEWART: “If trusting the judgment of those working in schools is haterade, pour me a glass.”
It’s no secret that I’ve been an opponent of returning eligible charters to OPSB. My opposition stems from a fear that our progress since Katrina could be slowly reversed if schools are returned to local control. On the other hand, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the current arrangement can last forever – at some point in the future, the charters now under the aegis of the RSD will be returned to local control. Therefore, before that that day comes, we as a community need to ensure that policies and structures are in place to prevent the board from slowly backsliding toward the dysfunction of the past.
Below, I address the policy changes OPSB should make make before eligible RSD charters return to local control.
OPSB Needs To Make Equity Its Priority
This past year, the boards of directors of 35 out of 36 eligible schools elected to stay with the RSD and with good reason: the Orleans Parish School Board has yet to make equity its priority. Before Katrina, a two-tiered public education system existed in New Orleans. On the one hand were a handful of well-resourced, selective-admissions magnets that served middle class white and black families, and on the other, were the decrepit, perennially-failing neighborhood schools that served everyone else. Chris Stewart alluded to this disparity in his exchange with Andre Perry:
“New Orleans has always had schools that screened out poor kids to create enclaves for the black elite and the sons and daughters of bankers and doctors. I know what the other side of that coin looks like having attended schools for the other people.”
To its credit, the RSD has implemented policies aimed at maximizing equity for students and families, starting with the fact that all schools in the RSD are open-enrollment and families can apply to any school in the city. Many RSD school leaders I’ve spoken with are concerned that OPSB doesn’t share that same commitment to equity and worry that the return of RSD charters would simply recreate the two-tiered system they’ve worked so hard to eliminate.
However, the very fact that each RSD charter gets to decide whether to return to OPSB gives them powerful leverage. Thus, I propose that eligible RSD charters band together and set three conditions for their return to local control:
I. Require all OPSB schools to participate in the OneApp enrollment system
One of the most important mechanisms for ensuring equity in New Orleans’ public school system is OneApp, the RSD-administered city-wide enrollment system created to make the process as fair and accessable as possible for families. Every charter school in the RSD, as well as direct-run schools under OPSB1, are required to use OneApp. However, eight elite, selective-admissions OPSB charters have chosen to retain their own application processes and timelines, and OPSB has thus far refused to require these schools to join OneApp until their charters are renewed, which in some instances won’t happen until 2021.
Some believe that these schools, which tend to enroll a whiter, more affluent student population, are refusing to join OneApp as a means of deterring low-income, minority students from applying. As evidence, they point to schools like Lusher Charter, one of the highest-performing public schools in the city, which has refused to join OneApp. In truth, when one looks at the application process, it’s not hard to see why some claim it’s exclusionary, whether intentional or not.
To start, Lusher sets aside a significant portion of its entering kindergarten spots for families its neighborhood preference zone [see below], an area in Uptown New Orleans that encompasses both Tulane and Loyola universities. Furthermore, Lusher has an exclusive agreement with Tulane, in which it sets aside a designated number of spots for qualified children of full-time university staff.
Families outside of these two groups must vie for the small number of remaining openings and are selected according to a admissions matrix [see below], in which applicants (in most cases, pre-K students applying for kindergarten spots) are scored on the basis of a reading/math examination, a written application, and “parental involvement,” where prospective students earn points for parent attendance at a “curriculum meeting” as well as for completing a questionaire. Competition for the limited number of spots at Lusher is so fierce, it’s nearly impossible to be admitted without achieving a near-perfect score on the matrix.
Of course, the question of whether Lusher uses these elements as a means to screen out certain families is purely speculative. To be clear, the school does serve students of all colors and backgrounds, and those fortunate enough to gain admittance most certainly receive a high-quality education. On the other hand, if you’re a single parent working two jobs to feed your family, good luck jumping through the various hoops required for admission to Lusher, or other OneApp holdouts like Lake Forest, whose application requirements are irritatingly convoluted.
But here’s the thing: Lusher and other OPSB schools that have yet to join OneApp could likely retain their admissions exams and neighborhood preferences under the unified enrollment system. The only difference is that the unallocated seats at these schools would be assigned through OneApp according to their timeline2. Parents would only have to fill out one application that covers every school in the city, making the enrollment process infinitely easier for families to navigate. Given that these holdouts are public schools that receive taxpayer money, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
II. Require all OPSB schools to provide transportation to students free-of-charge, no matter where they live in the city
City-wide access and a universal enrollment system doesn’t get you much if students have no way of getting to and from school each day. Therefore, RSD charters are required to provide free transportation to students regardless of where they live in the city. As The Lens highlighted in a widely-cited yet totally overblown “exposé” on charter busing back in 2013, this requirement imposes significant costs and logistical challenges for RSD charters. However, many charter school leaders believe it’s a price worth paying in order to ensure that families can access the educational options available to them.
Unfortunately, several OPSB charters don’t provide free transportation to students, which presents a significant obstacle to low income students who might otherwise attend these schools. As Della Hasselle reported in an piece for WWNO, Lusher offers bus service to students, but families must pay out-of-pocket for the privilege, which at the time cost somewhere between $600-$700 per year. In contrast, Ben Franklin High School provides free bus transportation for students who reside in New Orleans East, while families who live Uptown or on the Westbank must pay for the service.
Of course, it goes without saying that the lack of free transportation presents a significant barrier to poor families and no doubt deters many from even applying to these schools. That shouldn’t be the case. Requiring all schools to provide free transportation would send a clear message to RSD charters that OPSB is committed to providing equitable access to its schools.
III. Adopt the tiered special education funding model in use by the Recovery School District
I’ve addressed the RSD’s unique special education funding formula previously, so I won’t belabor the point too much. Let it suffice to say that the difference in the cost of educating a student with a speech disorder, for example, whose IEP requires five hours of therapy a week vs. the cost of educating a student with a severe physical disability who requires a full-time aide is huge. The current SPED funding model used in OPSB doesn’t take those cost differentials into consideration.
However, as noted in a recent report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the RSD allocates special education funds based on each special needs student’s “disability category plus a student’s total weekly service minutes, tying the dollars to the actual special services a student needs.” This cost-conscious approach allows RSD charters to open their doors to special education students without having to scramble to find money to pay for the services they require. It also gives schools the flexibility to pursue innovative ways of supporting special education students, both in and out of the classroom. As a result, special education students in New Orleans charter schools are outperforming their peers across the state on several measures, including their high school graduation rate.
Because RSD charters currently serve a disproportionate number of the city’s special needs students, they will be reticent to return to OPSB unless the district adopts the RSD’s SPED funding approach. If OPSB wants to entice these schools back into the fold, the district needs make sure they can continue to serve their special education populations without taking a big hit to their bottom lines.
Read more about Lusher’s admissions process:
- To their credit, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School (or “Sci High”) voluntarily agreed to join OneApp back in March. ↩
- The application deadline for Lusher, Lake Forest, and other schools in the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools this year was January 9th – a full seven weeks before OneApp’s first round deadline on February 28th. ↩
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
All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers
For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.
Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.
Louisiana is ready for a new direction. https://t.co/eDLPMl5tEC
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) April 12, 2017
Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.
Unethical and possibly worse
Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.
According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.
In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…
- Although he called out sick on February 23rd, he noted in a blog post that he actually went to Baton Rouge to attend the final meeting of the Governor’s ESSA Advisory Council;
- He took sick leave on March 29th, but again mentioned on his blog that he was in Baton Rouge at a BESE meeting;
- The same goes for May 18th (he also missed May 17th), when he was “sick” in Baton Rouge to introduce House Bill 536 with State Rep. Vincent Pierre, as he wrote in a blog post ironically titled, “HB-536: Who really puts children first?”
What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.
— LAE (@LAEducators) November 16, 2016
If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.
Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.
The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) November 17, 2016
Exactly why reform is needed
When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.
In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.
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