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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

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

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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:

Red Flags Everywhere | PE + CO

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.

Smothers Academy CEO Damon Smothers (left) is being sued by his brother Kemic (right), who previously served as the school’s legal counsel and director of procurement.

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:

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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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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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