Well, Andrea Gabor is at it again.
A few years ago, Andrea Gabor wrote an article for Newsweek that maligned the transformation of New Orleans’ public schools since Hurricane Katrina. At the time, I wrote a response that exposed the “inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and glaring omissions of fact” in her Newsweek piece – issues that made it abundantly clear that Gabor was “pushing her political agenda at the expense of her journalistic principles.”
Now, as we prepare to mark the 10th Anniversary of Katrina, Gabor has taken to the pages of the New York Times to add insult to injury with “The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover,” another cheap shot at the accomplishments of so many hardworking New Orleans educators.
Once again, I feel compelled respond. Below, I set the record straight on several of the misleading points Gabor makes in her latest attack.
I. On the State Take Over…
First of all, Gabor manages to get many of the basic facts wrong in her opinion piece. For example, Gabor states:
“Two years before the storm, the State of Louisiana had set up a so-called Recovery School District to take over individual failing schools. After Katrina, the district eventually took over about 60 local schools; about 20 well-performing schools remained in the Orleans Parish School Board, creating, in essence, a two-tier system.”
In fact, the Recovery School District (RSD) took over 102 out of 126 schools from the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in late-November 2005. Of the remaining 24 schools, seven were uninhabitable, 12 became charters, and five remained directly managed by OPSB.
Moreover, the schools that escaped state take over were nearly all selective-admissions magnet schools, the beneficiaries of the two-tiered public education system that existed in the city before Katrina. As education activist and New Orleans native Chris Stewart wrote:
“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.”
If anything, the Recovery School District’s work to improve New Orleans schools over the past decade is an attempt to rectify this inequitable history.
II. On Louisiana’s Standards…
While conceding that proficiency, high school graduation, and college entry rates have all risen in New Orleans over the past ten years (no small matters), Gabor attempts to diminish these accomplishments by claiming:
“But the New Orleans miracle is not all it seems. Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation.”
Apparently, Professor Gabor has somehow missed the extensive national media coverage [for example, in the New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, and even Gawker] of the battle between State Superintendent John White and Governor Bobby Jindal over the Common Core State Standards, which Louisiana adopted in 2012.
In short, the contention that Louisiana state standards are among the lowest in the nation is, to borrow Gabor’s own words, “simply false.”
III. On the Education Research Alliance Studies…
Gabor cites two studies from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University to bolster her claim that “stark problems remain”:
“A recent report by the Education Research Alliance confirmed that principals engage in widespread “creaming” — selecting, or counseling out, students based on their expected performance on standardized tests. In a forthcoming study, the alliance expects to show that lowest-scoring students are less likely to move to higher-performing schools.”
As I noted in a previous post, the first study referenced by Gabor was based on data from the 2012-13 school year. Since that time, OneApp – the RSD’s city-wide enrollment system – has made the “creaming” concerns she raises irrelevant, as schools no longer have the opportunity to either select or counsel out students.
— Peter C. Cook (@petercook) June 20, 2015
The second, forthcoming study that Gabor mentions looked at what happens to students at charters that are closed for low performance. Ironically, both Gabor and I attended the session at the ERA conference that presented the results from the study, which actually found that most students impacted by closures end up at higher performing schools. How Andrea Gabor could construe these results so negatively is beyond me, but you can watch the presentation below and try to figure it out yourself.
IV. On Disadvantaged and Disappearing Children…
Two of Gabor’s favorite (and vague) claims about New Orleans is that the reforms have left behind the city most disadvantaged students, as well as excluded large numbers of young people who have simply dropped out of the system. For example:
“There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.”
“One problem is that in the decentralized charter system, no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids…Louisiana’s official dropout rates are unreliable, but a new report by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, using Census Bureau survey data from 2013, found that over 26,000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because they are neither working nor in school.”
Gabor’s contention that New Orleans’ reforms have left behind the city’s most disadvantaged kids seems hard to square with the fact that the performance of special needs students has increased dramatically over the past ten years. In fact, special needs students in New Orleans are graduating from high school at a much higher rate than their peers statewide.
Furthermore, Gabor’s claim that “no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids” will no doubt come as a surprise to officials at the RSD and Louisiana Department of Education, the two agencies that are, in fact, charged with keeping track of students in New Orleans’ public schools.
Here’s how officials keep track of students:
- At the high school level, LDOE’s accountability measure includes the cohort graduation rate. Schools get credit for ensuring that every student graduates high school within 4 years. If a student does not graduate, the last school of record for that student loses points on its School Performance Score (SPS).
At the elementary school level, LDOE’s accountability measure includes points for students who enroll in the 9th grade and achieve enough credits to move to the 10th grade. This pushes elementary schools to ensure that 8th graders are successfully transitioning to high school.
The RSD simultaneously tracks students who are excessively truant through its Youth Opportunity Center (YOC). The YOC is staffed by social workers who partner with schools to identify students who have registered for school but have not attended, students who have a significant number of absences, and students who are adjudicated or hospitalized. Once identified, social workers then support these students to get them back on the pathway to school.
V. On Minority Participation…
Gabor raises an oft-repeated claim by reform opponents that minorities – in particular, African-Americans – have been excluded from school leadership positions as a result of the reforms:
“Meanwhile, black charter advocates charge that the local charter ‘club’ leaves little room for African-American leadership. Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent, said the charter movement won’t have ‘any type of long-term sustainability’ without meaningful participation from the black community.”
She also states that the reforms have replaced African-American educators with young, white, inexperienced teachers:
“A key part of the New Orleans narrative is that firing the unionized, mostly black teachers after Katrina cleared the way for young, idealistic (mostly white) educators who are willing to work 12- to 14-hour days.”
Fortunately, the actual facts on the ground make clear this isn’t the case at all. Not only are a majority of the city’s school leaders people of color, but more than half of them lived in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina.
In addition, the city’s teaching corps is far more diverse and experienced than Gabor would lead readers to believe. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, 54% of teachers in New Orleans’ public schools were African-American. Teachers in the RSD had, on average, 7.1 years of experience in the classroom; in OPSB charters and direct-run schools, those figures were 11.6 and 17.6 years of experience, respectively.
VI. On The Lessons From New Orleans…
Finally, the most infuriating statement in Gabor’s entire piece is her conclusion:
“For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.”
A note to Professor Gabor: We didn’t have a choice between improving our school system or starting from scratch. Our school system, our homes, our livelihoods were wiped out in a flood that covered over 80% of New Orleans.
In the aftermath of our nation’s greatest disaster, we came together to rebuild our great city, but we refused to rebuild a school system that had marginalized the poorest children in our community for far too long. Instead, we embarked on a new vision for public education in New Orleans and we took a path that doesn’t dovetail with the prerogatives of education reform opponents like Andrea Gabor.
Today, a decade after Katrina, tens of thousands of children are receiving a better education and have vastly improved life opportunities because of our collective work – and a pessimistic screed in the New York Times is never going to change that fact.
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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