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Check Your Privilege Lusher Officials Stoke Fears Over Proposed Funding Formula

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that called out Lusher Charter School officials for making misleading, alarmist claims about an upcoming change to their school funding formula. Now, unfortunately, it appears that Lusher officials have decided to take their misinformation campaign a step further.

On Monday, Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger and Board President Blaine LeCesne sent an email to parents that reiterated their exaggerated claim that Lusher will lose $1.2 million when the new funding formula is adopted. Moreover, this “Parent Call to Action” urged parents to write members of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to demand that they walk back the new funding plan. [See full text of email below]

A Brief Recap…

Up to now, RSD and OPSB have used different formulas to allocate funds to their respective schools. OPSB has used the statewide funding formula, which works for a traditional school district, but not so much for the decentralized, majority-charter districts that we have in New Orleans.

Recognizing this fact, RSD adopted its own innovative approach several years ago, which allocates funds based on a weighted formula that more accurately reflects the added costs of serving children with special needs, English Language Learners, at-risk and overage students, etc.

Statewide funding formula (top) vs. RSD's formula.

Statewide funding formula (top) vs. RSD’s formula.

Not only does this approach make sense, but it was necessary since the RSD is an open-enrollment district where schools are required to serve any student who chooses to enroll. Moreover, because the Recovery School District serves a disproportionate number of the city’s special education, ELL, at-risk, and overage students, it needed to ensure that schools had the financial capacity to serve those children.

The RSD serves a disproportionate number of the city's highest-need students.

The RSD serves a disproportionate number of the city’s highest-need students.

This past summer, Governor Jindal signed Act 467 into law, which created a committee of representatives from the RSD, Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS), and special education community, tasked with hammering out a unified funding formula for all public schools in New Orleans. The committee must submit the new formula for approval by BESE in March and will go into effect on July 1st. [More background on why the funding formula is changing is available here.]

Lusher’s New Low…

Over the years, I have tried to give Lusher officials the benefit of the doubt, however the letter sent out by Riedlinger and LeCesne on Monday validates what many have said about school’s leadership over the years: They take public funds, but want to play by their own rules.

Monday’s letter claims that as a result of the new funding formula, Lusher “will lose more than $1,277,000 annually in addition to the $400,000 reduction we received this school year, and in total is 11.65% of Lusher’s operating budget.” It also later asserts, “Historically successful schools’ budgets are being gutted to fund historically underperforming & mismanaged schools under the guise that the successful schools educate ‘privileged’ students.”

As I’ve stated before, neither of these claims are true. In reality, the proposed changes are not only fair, they’re generous considering the fact that Lusher serves a disproportionately small number of the city’s highest need students. For example, the latest version of the funding formula:

  • Explicitly phases-in the funding change over several years
  • Ensures that no school will see their budget cut by more than 2% a year
  • Does not account for increases in local revenue, which have risen over the past several years, and would further reduce any negative impact on school budgets

There’s also another important factor that makes Riedlinger and LeCesne’s ominous warning all the more ridiculous: Lusher officials are currently sitting on a $20 million fund balance.

Yes, you read that correctly: Lusher has $20 million in the bank right now.

But what’s worse, in my estimation, is Riedlinger and LeCesne’s obnoxious assertion that their budget would be “gutted to fund historically underperforming & mismanaged schools” simply because Lusher serves “privileged students.” It’s an attempt to rally parents by stoking the race/class fears and resentments that our community has grappled with over its long history and it’s disgraceful.

It also ignores the fact that Lusher primarily serves students from privileged families because Kathy Riedlinger & Co. have made every effort to ensure they can pick-and-choose who they want. Not only do students have to test into the Lower School, but they impose other admissions requirements that serve as barriers to low-income families seeking admission. For example, until recently, Lusher has resisted joining OneApp and the school still doesn’t provide free transportation to students who live across town.

There’s also Lusher’s legally questionable admissions policy that states that parents who withhold “information concerning known or suspected special education needs” may invalidate their child’s application. (Of course, how exactly Lusher would determine whether a parent intentionally withheld their child’s disability status is unclear, but it certainly creates an opening for Lusher to reject applicants deemed “undesirable”.)

Screenshot of the application instructions on Lusher's website.

Screenshot of the application instructions on Lusher’s website.

All of this is to say that Lusher has enjoyed – and will continue to enjoy – a privileged position among the city’s public schools because of its selective admissions policies, its relationship with Tulane University, and its location, among other factors. That’s not going to change as a result of the proposed funding changes. The new formula (which, by the way, most OPSB schools are onboard with) is not class warfare by other means. No one is trying to ruin Lusher and it’s disingenuous of Kathy Riedlinger and Blaine LeCesne to portray it that way.

Act 467 presented an opportunity for educators and community members to come together to develop a new funding formula that incorporates the equitable funding approach used in the RSD, without imposing painful cuts on schools as a result of the change. Lusher officials should stop trying to derail that process.

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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Lloyd Hall

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Clark Thompson

As opposed to the law that is not law that they keep on the books just in case? Lol.

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Charters

Dear Board Members… An Open Letter To The Arkansas State Board Of Education

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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.

Sincerely,

Peter C. Cook
New Orleans, LA

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Charters

All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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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.

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Screen-Shot-2017-06-10-at-02.52.38
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 peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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