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Quick Take: No, Poverty Isn’t Destiny…Or An Excuse John Bel Edwards argues "poverty trumps education." He's wrong.

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When the Democratic candidate for Governor, John Bel Edwards, met with the Editorial Board of Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser on Tuesday to explain how “things would be different in an Edwards administration,” the two-term State Representative had a lot to say about the state of public education in Louisiana.

Some of the points he made were commendable, like his support for a stable higher education funding model that would avoid the fiscal nightmare our state’s public universities suffered through earlier this spring. However, as we’ve seen recently, when the subject turned to K-12 education, Edwards – who believes he’s “the engineer who can put the engine back on the tracks” – instead went off the rails. For example, The Advertiser reported:

“Edwards said he embraces the state’s push for higher standards for K-12 education, but not the process the state has chosen to pursue them. He said he’s for accountability, but believes letter grades are unfair to schools with high percentages of impoverished children. Teachers are too often compelled to teach to the test, he said, and who can blame them? Their jobs depend on it.”

While Edwards’ equivocal positions on high academic standards and accountability pose a problem, I was more disappointed that he proceeded to trot out the old “poverty trumps education” argument, one of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points:

“For example, he said, his own son’s school, where his wife teaches music, drew an ‘F’ letter grade from the state, but he said poverty, not teachers, was what undermined that public school. Teachers there were ‘fine,’ he said, but most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In effect, Edwards is saying we we should lower our expectations for certain children just because they happen to come from poor families.

Let’s examine John Bel Edwards’ statement for a moment. It’s true that Amite Elementary Magnet School, where his wife Donna worked until recently, does serve a high proportion of low-income students. In 2014, over 95% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. On the other hand, Amite Elementary received a “D” in 2013-14 (S.Y. 2014-15 haven’t been issued yet) and a School Performance Score (SPS) of 54.7 (out of 150) – i.e., the school is not designated as failing as Edwards claims.

However, the more important question is whether a “D” grade and a SPS of 54.7 is the most we should expect from a school where the students are nearly all low-income. To test that, I decided to look at 2014 data of New Orleans public schools where 95% of students were free/reduced lunch eligible. Here’s what I found:

LEASchool%FRPL2014 Grade2014 SPS 2013 Grade2013 SPS
TangipahoaAmite Elementary Magnet School>95%D54.7F49.6
RSDKIPP Central City Academy>95%B95.2B96.9
OPSBMary Bethune Elementary >95%B93.7B88.1
OPSBMahalia Jackson Elementary School>95%B93.7B88.1
RSDMartin Behrman Elementary School>95%B93.3B92.1
OPSBRobert Russa Moton Charter School>95%B86.7D61.9
RSDEsperanza Charter School>95%B85.6C75.3
RSDLagniappe Academy of New Orleans>95%C82.3B85
RSDLafayette Academy>95%C81.7C79.7
RSDReNew SciTech Academy at Laurel>95%C81.6C75
RSDArthur Ashe Charter School>95%C81.2B90.2
RSDJames M. Singleton Charter School>95%C80.8D56.9
RSDAkili Academy of New Orleans>95%C80C71.6
RSDKIPP Central City Primary>95%C78C75.2
RSDLangston Hughes Charter Academy>95%C77.6C81.3
RSDEdgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence>95%C75.9D64.1
RSDSamuel J. Green Charter School>95%C74C78.4
RSDSophie B. Wright Learning Academy>95%C73.9B88.5
RSDCohen College Prep>95%C72.9D63.5
RSDMary D. Coghill Charter School>95%C69.7NANA
RSDNelson Elementary School>95%D67.3C79.5
RSDMcDonogh City Park Academy>95%D66.4C77.6
RSDLawrence D. Crocker College Prep>95%T66.1NANA
RSDFannie C. Williams Charter School>95%D64.8T75.7
RSDMcDonogh #32 Elementary School>95%D64.4C70.9
RSDHarriet Tubman Charter School>95%D63T72.7
RSDReNew Dolores T. Aaron Elementary>95%D62.5T64.4
RSDArise Academy>95%D58.3C72.5
RSDMcDonogh 42 Charter School>95%T58.3T39.4
RSDWilliam J. Fischer Elementary School>95%D56.8C76
RSDReNew Schaumburg Elementary>95%T55.7NANA
RSDReNew Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak>95%D55D60.1

In short, there were 31 public schools in New Orleans that scored higher than Amite Elementary in 2014, even though nearly all of their kids were low-income. What’s more, some schools in New Orleans, like Mary Bethune Elementary, are knocking the cover off the ball. Nearly 80% of Bethune students were performing at or above grade level in 2014, as opposed to only 46% of students at Amite Elementary.

Schools like Mary Bethune refute the "poverty trumps education" argument

Schools like Mary Bethune refute the “poverty trumps education” argument

Now, I’m not raising these facts to denigrate the hard work of Donna Edwards or her former colleagues at Amite Elementary Magnet School. I’m also not saying that poverty doesn’t present considerable challenges for educators – as a former teacher in New Orleans’ public schools, I’ve faced those very challenges.

Nevertheless, it’s clear there are many public schools in Louisiana’s low-income communities where students are beating John Bel Edwards’ low expectations hands down. We live in a state with one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country and we can’t allow our politicians to simply those write those kids off because it’s politically expedient.

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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Keith Leger, Ed.D.Peter C. CookpecheramieGaney Arsement Recent comment authors
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Keith Leger, Ed.D.

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pecheramie
pecheramie

You make lots of suppositions – that the conditions in Amite are the same as in your comparative schools, that the neighborhoods that are doing better have the same conditions as Amite, that school systems have the same level of outreach to the communities. Mostly, you are taking one sentence from J. B. Edwards’ comments and extrapolating a position that he feels it is impossible to overcome poverty in school. Worse, that he is using it as an excuse. Using your metrics, I do not see a plan for success in Louisiana. What I see is a plan that can only produce six schools with a B rating out of 26 examples, a plan that produces more D and T ratings than C ratings. If anything, your metrics prove your assumption about J. B. Edwards’ comment – your sample shows that more schools in disadvantaged communities are producing D ratings than C ratings and more C ratings than B ratings.

Peter C. Cook

@ganeyarsement I’m sure your class is great for the 2/3s of kids whose family income is high enough for your time. @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy

Peter C. Cook

@ganeyarsement It’s a sad day when a teacher believes he has no influence on kids outcomes. @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy #sorryforyourkids

Keith Leger, Ed.D.

likes this.

Peter C. Cook

@ganeyarsement I just did – follow the link. @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy

Ganey Arsement

@petercook @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy By all means, start listing them.

Peter C. Cook

@ganeyarsement Well, there are schools who manage to perform at high levels in spite of your claims. Go figure. @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy

Ganey Arsement

@petercook @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy …and poverty doesn’t just mean a lack of money.

Ganey Arsement

@petercook @keithleger1 @HollyBoffy The problem with your argument is that learning HAS TO continue outside of the classroom…

Louisiana

After Janus, The Drought? LAE & LFT are downplaying the impact of the Janus v. AFSCME decision, but both are subsidized by their national unions

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The United States Supreme Court handed public sector unions – including the teachers unions – a major defeat on Wednesday with their decision in Janus v. AFSCME, in which a majority of justices agreed that mandatory agency fee laws violate the First Amendment rights of non-union public employees.

In the 21 states with agency fee laws, public employees covered by collective bargaining agreements were required to pay fees to the union to cover bargaining costs, even if they refused to join. Because agency fees only offered a small discount when compared to union dues, many individuals felt compelled to become members.

Screenshot from Education Next.

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down those laws, many observers expect that public sector unions will lose anywhere from 10-30% of their members, and by extension, a big chunk of their revenues. In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, National Education Association (NEA) president Lily Eskelsen García admitted her union expects to lose at least 200,000 members over the next 18 months, depriving them of around $28 million in funding.

What about Louisiana?

Louisiana, of course, is a right-to-work state, meaning that public sector unions here are unlikely to see a drop in their membership, but the Janus decision could have a significant financial impact on the state’s two teachers unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT).

In an article in The Advocate on Wednesday, officials from LAE and LFT sought to downplay the potential fallout from the ruling, insisting that any impact on their organizations would be minimal. They also wildly exaggerated the size of their respective unions, with both LAE and LFT claiming around 20,000 members.

LAE president Debbie Meaux and LFT president Larry Carter.

Mike Antonucci, a researcher who has been writing about teachers unions for decades, released figures on Wednesday showing that LAE had 10,461 members in 2016-17, of which only 9,416 were full dues-paying members. While precise numbers are not available for LFT, data from tax filings and public records requests show that the union receives far less in dues payments than their counterparts at LAE, while charging their members more on an annual basis. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that LFT is even smaller than LAE’s 10,000 members.

Those tax filings, along with annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, also reveal that both LAE and LFT are heavily subsidized by their national unions. According to tax returns, LAE reported $3,291,199 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, although Department of Labor reports show that nearly 30% of that money came from the National Education Association.

Data from IRS 990s and U.S. Department of Labor annual reports.

Likewise, LFT reported $1,809,239 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, but nearly 27% of that total came from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Moreover, as I’ve noted in previous posts, AFT also provides substantial funding to its local affiliates, like the United Teachers of New Orleans, Jefferson Federation of Teachers, and Red River United.

Will the money dry up?

Up to now, LAE and LFT could depend on their national unions to provide a substantial portion of their annual budgets, but the Supreme Court’s decision this week means that steady stream of funding could begin to dry up in the not-too-distant future. While It’s unlikely that AFT and NEA will completely cut-off subsidies to their affiliates in right-to-work states like Louisiana, there’s no escaping the fact that there will be less money to go around.

How that will ultimately impact the activities of Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers is yet to be seen.

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Louisiana

The Red River Ripoff Shreveport's AFT Affiliate Uses Bureaucratic Obstacles To Keep Dues Coming in

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Red River United (RRU), the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union representing educators in Caddo, Bossier, and Red River Parishes, is using bureaucratic hurdles and subterfuge in an attempt to prevent members from leaving the organization.

A reader forwarded me a series of emails regarding three of the union’s current members who submitted a union drop request to Red River officials in October, indicating that they wished to end their affiliation with RRU and stop the monthly deduction of dues from their bank accounts.

The sign outside Red River United’s offices in Shreveport.

The receipt of those forms was acknowledged by the union. Nevertheless, when the three teachers checked with their banks at the end of the month, Red River United had once again deducted dues payments from their accounts. On November 1st, an email was sent to RRU officials notifying them of their mistake and requesting that the union refund those dues to the three individuals.

An emailed response from RRU’s in-house counsel, Elizabeth Gibson, flatly refused to refund those payments, explaining that the three teachers “executed a confidential agreement with Red River United (Membership Form), wherein the individuals authorized Red River United, or its designee, to draft their bank account each month for the amount indicated in the agreement for each billing period.”

She continued:

“Further, they acknowledged that they must give at least 30 days written notice to Red River United to cancel future automated debits. Red River United did not receive written notice at least 30 days in advance personally from the individuals indicating they had chosen to cancel their automated debits/membership. They must physically come to the offices of Red River United to cancel the bank draft due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein. These individuals have not done so. Accordingly, they are not entitled to a refund of the monies they authorized to be withdrawn from their bank accounts.”

Gibson added that the teachers needed to physically go to the union’s offices to provide a so-called “wet signature” in the presence of a Red River United employee in order to officially withdraw from the union and stop the monthly bank withdrawals.

Gibson’s emailed response in which she refused to refund dues to the three teachers.

A ridiculous (and dishonest?) response

Gibson’s response is not only ridiculous, but possibly dishonest. It’s also clearly an attempt by Red River United to make it as difficult as possible for current members to dropout of the union.

To start, the union’s “confidential agreement” – i.e., RRU’s membership form – isn’t all that confidential (in fact, I’ve included a copy of it at the bottom of this post). Nowhere on the membership form does it say anything about the requirement to provide a “wet signature” in the presence of an RRU employee to leave the union and stop monthly payments.

The small print from Red River United’s membership form.

Moreover, Gibson’s contention that the three teachers needed to physically go to RRU’s offices to cancel the bank drafts “due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein” is laughable. Anyone who has ever had a subscription to a newspaper or magazine can tell you that you don’t need to go to their offices to cancel it. Plus, there’s nothing “confidential” about the process. All Red River United needs to do is notify their bank to stop the monthly automatic withdrawals for those three individuals. End of story.

So why is Red River United trying to make these three teachers jump through bureaucratic hoops when they clearly don’t want to be part of their organization anymore? I suspect the union is trying to force them to come to their offices so they can pressure them to remain members, which is the kind of behavior you might expect from a dodgy timeshare broker, not a teachers union.

Nevertheless, teachers unions in other states have increasingly employed similar tactics to stem the departure of their members. For example, after Michigan became a right-to-work state in 2012, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) changed their opt-out policy to mandate that teachers withdrawal in August and force them to send their resignation requests to an obscure P.O. box address hidden on their website. The union subsequently refused to honor opt-out requests that were sent directly to MEA headquarters or were received outside of the month of August.

The United States Supreme Court is set to decide Janus v. AFSCME this spring.

I expect that we’ll see even more of these sort of schemes in the coming months. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case which argues that requiring public employees to pay agency fees to unions (including teachers unions) is unconstitutional. It is widely expected that the Court will end up striking down the laws in the 22 states that currently mandate agency fees, meaning that teachers unions across the country will soon be scrambling to come up with ways to keep their members from dropping out.

Because Louisiana has long been a right-to-work state, the Janus case should have little direct impact here. At the same time, that’s exactly why Red River United’s efforts to make it as difficult as possible for members to leave their organization needs to be called out. Louisiana’s public school teachers have the right to join a union or not. Therefore, they should be able to leave a union just as easily as they signed up. If Red River United wants to salvage some of its integrity, it should immediately accept the resignation of the three educators in question and refund their dues as soon as possible.


Read Red River United’s membership form:

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