Ever since John Bel Edwards’ upset victory in the gubernatorial race last fall, education reform supporters have worried that the Governor would try to roll back many of the policies that have helped raise student achievement across the state.
After all, during his tenure in the Louisiana House of Representatives, Edwards opposed Common Core and filed numerous bills to limit charter autonomy and accountability. Edwards also has strong ties to the state’s teachers unions – the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) – both of which threw their full weight behind his campaign for governor.
— Julia O'Donoghue (@JSODonoghue) February 3, 2016
On Monday, reformers’ fears were realized when Governor Edwards issued his legislative agenda for the 2016 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature, which includes proposals to stem the growth of charter schools in A and B-rated districts and water-down teacher evaluations.
I. Limiting Type 2 Charters
One of the proposals backed by Governor Edwards is Senate Bill 170, filed by Senator Blade Morrish (R-Jennings), which would prohibit the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) from approving Type 2 charter schools in districts with a grade of “A” or “B” in the most recent academic year. The bill is nearly identical to one that Edwards filed last year – House Bill 21 – that died in committee.
The Type 2 charter pathway was created to serve as an appeals process for applicants whose charter proposals were rejected by local school boards. BESE currently has the authority to approve Type 2 charters in any district in the state and the board has used that power to both approve and deny Type 2 charters based on the merits of their applications. In total, 35 of the 144 charter schools in Louisiana are Type 2 charters.
Some superintendents have tried to challenge BESE’s authority to approve charter schools in their districts, pointing out that every student who leaves a traditional public school for a charter takes their per-pupil funding with them. In fact, the Louisiana Association of Educators and Iberville Parish School Board both filed lawsuits against BESE over the issue in 2014, although a state judge rejected those claims.
As a result, district officials and other charter school opponents are now trying to frame their argument as an issue of local control over education. Governor Edwards hammered this very message home in his State of the State remarks, saying:
“We must restore more local control over how children are educated and tax dollars are spent to local school boards that perform well under our accountability system…Parents and taxpayers should be able to hold their school board members accountable for these decisions, and Baton Rouge bureaucrats should not have primary responsibility over such decisions in these districts.”
But lawmakers should ignore the rhetoric about local control because they have 41,799 reasons to reject Senate Bill 170. 41,799 is the number of students currently attending D/F-rated schools in A and B districts across the state, as shown in the table below.
Not surprisingly, most of the students in these schools are low-income students of color, a demographic that our public schools have often failed to adequately serve. Legislators should not take away BESE’s ability to provide these students and their families with the opportunity to attend high-quality charter schools.
II. Weakening Teacher Evaluations
For years, the state’s teachers unions have been making hysterical claims about Compass, Louisiana’s teacher evaluation system, and particularly its use of value-added measures (VAM), which use standardized test scores to measure student growth. At one point, LFT President Steve Monaghan even claimed that, “many of the state’s finest teachers will be labeled ‘ineffective’ because of a flawed rating system.”
Of course, the evaluation disaster that Monaghan and others promised never materialized, but that hasn’t stopped the unions from railing against evaluations. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Governor Edwards’ legislative agenda includes three separate bills seeking to water down teacher evaluations:
- Senate Bill 279 filed by Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans)
- Senate Bill 342 filed by Sen. Gerald Boudreaux (D-Lafayette)
- House Bill 723 filed by Rep. Edward Price (D-Gonzales) & Rep. Jeff Hall (D-Alexandria)
These three proposals, which are virtually identical, would reduce the VAM component of teachers’ overall evaluation scores from from 50% to 25%.
That would be a mistake. A recent study from researchers at Brown and Vanderbilt universities revealed that principals tend to inflate teachers’ scores on the subjective portion (i.e., classroom observations) of evaluations. The researchers interviewed 100 principals in an urban district about the evaluation process and later assessed the scores those school leaders assigned to teachers.
Their findings were shocking. As the Washington Post reported:
“Principals estimated that about 28 percent of teachers in their buildings were performing below proficient, but they also predicted that they would assign low ratings to just 24 percent, openly acknowledging that they would inflate some teachers’ scores. At the year’s end, however, it turned out that fewer than 7 percent of teachers actually received ratings below proficient.”
This tendency to inflate scores is exactly why VAM counts as 50% of the overall evaluation score. If we cut the VAM component to 25%, we will essentially give ineffective teachers a free pass.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened when BESE suspended the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations during the transition to Common Core. In the 2012-13 school year, teachers in tested subjects were evaluated using the 50% value-added/50% observation formula. When the Compass scores were tallied, 32% of Louisiana teachers were rated Highly Effective, 49% were rated Effective Proficient, 8% were rated Emerging Proficient, and 4% were rated Ineffective.
The following year, VAM was temporarily replaced with teacher-created “Student Learning Targets,” or SLTs, which are a subjective measure of academic progress. As a result, Compass evaluation ratings rose and fewer ineffective teachers were identified in 2013-14, as shown below.
III. The Question for Lawmakers: Kids or Adults?
When lawmakers consider these bills in the coming weeks, they need to ask themselves a simple question: Are we going to prioritize the needs of children or the prerogatives of adults?
In the upcoming debate over Type 2 charters, legislators are likely to hear sentiments like those of Lafayette Superintendent Donald Aguillard, who recently called on lawmakers to hit the “pause button” on BESE-approved charters in his district, “until we have the time to put our strategic plan in place and we can demonstrate to the community of Lafayette that we are very concerned about helping our schools.”
Yet as we speak, there are eight schools in the Lafayette Parish School System that are failing to provide nearly 5,000 students with the education they deserve. Those students can’t hit a pause button in their lives and wait on school officials to get their acts together. Why would we keep BESE from offering those kids better educational options?
Likewise, the Governor’s friends from the teachers unions will no doubt tell legislators that the sky is falling due to teacher evaluations. But it’s important to remember that an effective teacher can have a huge influence on the educational outcomes of children. That’s why we have an obligation to ensure that every public school student is taught by a teacher who belongs in the classroom.
Lawmakers should always put the needs of children first and that means they should vote against these proposals.
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
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:
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.
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:
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:
- Einstein Charter Schools Deemed Noncompliant For Providing Inadequate Transportation (9/21/17)
- Einstein board prepares to fight Orleans school district over its failure to bus students (9/25/17)
- Einstein Charter Schools Push Back Against Transportation Policy (10/25/17)
- Busing dispute at Einstein schools is headed to court (11/30/17)
- School district reprimands Einstein Charter Schools for enrolling students outside OneApp (1/3/18)
- Parents, protesters picket Einstein Charter Schools over lack of busing (1/9/18)
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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