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A Failing Grade for Takeover District Critics A Closer Look at a Biased Commentary in Ed Week

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On Wednesday, Education Week published a commentary criticizing plans to create state takeover districts in Georgia and Pennsylvania. The piece – “A Failing Grade for K-12 State Takeovers” – was written by Kent McGuire and Katherine Dunn of the Southern Education Foundation and Kate Shaw and Adam Schott from Research For Action in Philadelphia.

The Southern Education Foundation has long had ties to the teachers unions, so their imprimatur on this wasn’t necessarily surprising. Research For Action, on the other hand, holds itself up as “an independent, trusted source for accessible, timely education research.” However, the fact that Shaw and Schott would put their names on this piece, which paints a very skewed picture of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) and Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) to bolster their argument against state takeovers, casts serious doubt on their credibility.

For example, when it comes to the RSD, the authors rehash a litany of well-worn (and largely baseless) assertions made by education reform critics:

“A decade later, New Orleans still reports some of the nation’s lowest achievement scores and graduation rates. Beyond poor academic outcomes, recent research from Stanford University found a host of negative consequences, with a majority of families reporting long commutes to school, overcrowding, a bewildering gantlet [sic] of enrollment procedures, high rates of pushout, and difficulty finding schools able to serve students with special needs (including that the most vulnerable are the least likely to receive needed supports).”

It’s interesting to note that the “research from Stanford University” they cite isn’t from CREDO, which published a study in 2013 that found that New Orleans’ charter schools were outperforming traditional schools across Louisiana. Instead, they’re referring to an October report from Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and (of course) Linda Darling-Hammond entitled, “Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace.”

While the study claims that New Orleans’ post-Katrina reforms have produced “poor academic outcomes,” there’s an important detail that is curiously left out of the report. One of its co-authors, Channa Cook-Harvey, was the founder of a New Orleans charter school – Sojourner Truth Academy – that was actually shutdown by the RSD in 2012.

As the Times-Picayune reported back in November 2011, the RSD decided to pull Sojourner Truth’s charter after years of dismal academic performance:

“Its 2010 school performance score was 53.5 on a scale of about 200, while the state considers anything below a 65 to be ‘failing.’ This past year its score dropped to 48.7, meaning fewer than 30 percent of its students scored at grade level or better on state exams.”

In fact, things were so bad at the school that Cook-Harvey was fired by Sojourner Truth’s board of directors in the summer of 2011. Moreover, the RSD subsequently launched an investigation into whether school leaders had improperly suspended students with special needs.

The RSD shut down her charter school, but I'm sure she doesn't have an ax to grind.

RSD shut down her charter school, but I’m sure she doesn’t have an axe to grind.

Seems like a reputable source, no? I mean, more so than say, CREDO or the Education Research Alliance at Tulane, whose in-depth study on the effect of the New Orleans takeover stated:

“For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott selectively omit evidence and facts like this when it comes to the ASD as well, but their assessment also reveals they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the reform efforts in Tennessee and the role of the Achievement School District.

The authors claim that opposition to the ASD is growing “in the wake of evidence that iZones — locally controlled improvement models — are posting ‘positive, statistically significant, and substantively meaningful effects on student achievement across all subjects.'”

It’s true that a recent Vanderbilt study showed that iZone schools in Memphis have shown growth – and that should be celebrated and continued – but the impetus behind the iZone effort came not from the ground up, but the top down. The iZones were presented as an opportunity for districts to avoid the takeover of their lowest performing schools by the ASD. Plus, those “locally controlled models” were thoroughly vetted and approved by the Tennessee Department of Education before they were launched.1

Moreover, the author of the Vanderbilt study made clear he didn’t believe the Achievement School District should be closed since it was “premature to pass definitive judgment on the ASD schools or priority schools more generally.” McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott never acknowledge this fact and present the Vanderbilt report as simply evidence of the ASD’s failure.

The author of a recent Vanderbilt study on the ASD has said the district shouldn't be closed.

The author of a recent Vanderbilt study on the ASD has said the district shouldn’t be closed.

But our friends from the Southern Education Foundation and Research For Action most clearly reveal their biases when they turn to the topic of charter schools, saying:

“[A] growing body of independent investigations shows that the preferred strategies of closing and chartering schools in takeover districts open the public treasury to fraud, waste, and abuse. Much of this fraud goes undetected, since even when stronger rules are instituted, most states have little capacity to monitor how private operators profit from public funds.”

The study they link to as evidence comes from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose website features blog posts from the likes of Diane Ravitch, P.L. Thomas, and Jeff Bryant, and which received $300,000 in funding from AFT and NEA last year. You know, credible.

The one thing the authors are right about is that folks in Georgia and Pennsylvania need to carefully consider whether to move forward with plans to create state takeover districts, but those conversations should be rooted in actual facts, not biased opinions passed off as such. From this perspective, McGuire, Dunn, Shaw, and Schott added nothing to the debate.


  1. Full disclosure: I’ve worked on iZone proposals for another district in Tennessee. 

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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Wilson Boyd

RT @petercook: RSD critics try to discredit RSD w/ study written by woman who had her #charter closed by RSD: pcook.me/recQ #edreform #NOLAed

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DFER Louisiana

RT @petercook: RSD critics try to discredit RSD w/ study written by woman who had her #charter closed by RSD: pcook.me/recQ #edreform #NOLAed

Citizen Stewart

RT @petercook: RSD critics try to discredit RSD w/ study written by woman who had her #charter closed by RSD: pcook.me/recQ #edreform #NOLAed

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RT @petercook: A Failing Grade for Takeover District Critics… #NOLAed #LaEd #edreform peterccook.com/b/1oJ

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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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