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The Problem With Independent Authorizers Keeping a Tight Rein on Charter Authorizing Is Essential For Success



Although I like Jennifer “Edushyster” Berkshire personally, it’s safe to say that when it comes to education policy, we agree to disagree on most points. However, I think I finally found an education issue on which we are more-or-less aligned: independent charter school authorizers.

On Tuesday, Salon published an interview Berkshire conducted with the authors of a recent study looking at the perils and pitfalls that can occur when states have multiple independent charter school authorizers. These authorizers are usually universities or other large non-profit organizations that can grant charters to applicants and are often responsible for providing oversight for those charter schools.

Edushyster and I share a love of yachting and a wariness for independent charter authorizers.

Edushyster and I share a love of yachting and a wariness of independent charter authorizers.

To be clear, I disagree with a number of the points made in the interview.1 I also think that comparing independent charter authorizing policies to the subprime mortgage crisis is ridiculous, as well as grossly misleading. That being said, I have to admit I’m inclined to agree with the overall message: independent charter school authorizers are generally a bad idea.

Here’s why I think independent authorizers are bad policy and bad for the charter school movement…

I. More Authorizers = Less Accountability

One of the most common arguments voiced by charter school critics is that charter schools as a whole have not produced better academic results than traditional public schools. Of course, this critique vastly oversimplifies the situation by ignoring the wide variation in charter school performance across the country. In some states, like Louisiana, charters outperform traditional public schools, while in other states the opposite is true.

Why do charters succeed in some states, but struggle in others? The evidence seems to indicate that charter authorizing policies play a big role. States with multiple independent authorizers, such as Ohio, tend to have lower performing charter schools. Matt Barnum over at The Seventy Four has written extensively about the Buckeye State’s troubled charter sector. In a recent review of Ohio’s push to reform their charter policies, he explained:

“The Ohio reform law is built on the idea that charter sponsors [i.e., authorizers] — organizations such as school districts, nonprofits, and universities — are in the best position to oversee schools’ performance. A frequent criticism of Ohio charters is that the sponsorship sphere is a free-for-all with so many players that poor-performing charters could shop for a new sponsor if they were threatened with closure and that sponsors themselves had little incentive to cut off bad schools.”

States with multiple independent authorizers tend to have lower performing charters. (Charts from CREDO's National Charter School Study 2013)

States with multiple independent authorizers tend to have lower performing charters. (Charts from CREDO’s National Charter School Study 2013)

We see the same problem in Michigan, where state law allows community colleges and public universities to serve as authorizers. According to an article last month from the Associated Press, the effort to turnaround Detroit’s perennially failing education system has stumbled:

“Only five of 229 public schools serving predominantly Detroit students — traditional schools, charters and schools run by a state turnaround district — exceed the state average in reading. And just 4 to 7 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in math and reading in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, dead last among 21 participating urban districts.”

These dismal results are due, at least in part, to the lousy oversight provided by independent authorizers. Over the past few years, droves of Detroit students have left district schools to enroll in charters overseen by 14 different authorizers and apparently many them have failed to ensure that their schools are raising student achievement. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder now wants to place the city’s charter and traditional schools under the oversight and control of a single board of commissioners with the power to close or reconstitute those that are failing. As Snyder told the AP, “There shouldn’t be a difference in how we treat a charter school from a public school in terms of transparency, openness and performance.”

Ohio and Michigan’s challenges illustrate what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. The more authorizers you have, the harder it is to ensure they’re rigorously vetting charter applicants and holding them accountable for results.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is trying to consolidate control over Detroit's charters.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is trying to consolidate control over Detroit’s charters.

II. Process Matters and Drives Perceptions

Last month, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) was supposed to decide whether to certify Southern University and New Schools for Baton Rouge (NSBR), an education advocacy non-profit, as the state’s first independent charter authorizers. However, State Superintendent John White pulled the item from BESE’s December agenda and it’s unclear if or when the board will take up the matter.

Up to now, the authority to grant charters has been limited to local school boards and BESE – and many of the districts that would be impacted by the new authorizers want it to stay that way. They worry that independent authorizers would approve charters in their districts without consultation and without accountability to the district’s stakeholders. More importantly, district officials are concerned that an influx of charter schools would siphon off funding.

That last concern is often offered as a rationale when school boards deny charter applications. And, although charter school supporters are sometimes loathe to admit it, it’s true: every student who leaves a traditional district public school for a charter takes at least some of their per-pupil funding with them. That doesn’t mean that school boards should stifle charter school growth in their districts, but it does mean there needs to be a deliberative process where the competing demands of charter operators, districts, and stakeholders can be considered.

State and local school boards (or in some places, like Mississippi, state charter school authorizing boards) are the most appropriate arenas for that process to take place. That’s why we have them. Because independent authorizers make their decisions outside the established political process, they only lend credence to reform opponents who characterize the charter movement as “privatization”. Moreover, if a state has the right policies in place, such as appeals for rejected charter applicants, it’s hard to make a strong case for the benefits of independent authorizers – unless the argument is that they allow charter applicants to sidestep the political process.

  1. For example, at one point in the interview, co-author Preston Green says, “In New Orleans, for example, charters have been sued for failing to provide students with disabilities with an education.” Actually, both the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board – which means both charter and traditional schools – were sued over special education concerns. That lawsuit was settled last year. 

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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Peter C. Cook

@morganripski Oh and how hospitable are districts when outside authorizers approve schools in their districts that they oppose?

Peter C. Cook

@morganripski Given the choice between successful charters and everyone feeling warm & fuzzy, I’ll choose successful charters, thank you.

Morgan Carter Ripski

@petercook riiiight. I hear districts are super hospitable to charters who’ve been approved on appeal

Peter C. Cook

@morganripski Perhaps you didn’t make it this far:


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:

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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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 with 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.

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.


Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

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…

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.

Missing absences?

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.

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