Fourteen years ago, I moved to New Orleans to teach biology, chemistry, and environmental science at John McDonogh Senior High School. One of the first things I did when I arrived in town was head over to the old United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) headquarters to join the union. Why? Because I was bright-eyed 22 year-old who naively believed that teachers unions actually practice what they preach.
While the union claimed it stood up for the rank-and-file, fought on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, and empowered teachers to do what’s best for children, I quickly discovered how far removed their rhetoric was from reality. UTNO’s 77-page collective bargaining agreement with the Orleans Parish School Board was a marvel of contractual engineering: its language expertly crafted to minimize the amount of time worked, maximize the amount of sick/personal/vacation time accumulated, and all but preclude the possibility of dismissal.
Thanks to the 20 sick days (out of a 180-day school year) that UTNO gave its members, teacher absenteeism was a major problem across the district. The union’s seniority rules meant that principals had virtually no say over who was picked to fill vacancies at their schools. And, while UTNO leaders incessantly preached about “solidarity,” they did little more than gripe about the deplorable conditions that teachers faced in schools.
Worst of all, rather than empowering educators, the collective bargaining agreement engendered a corrosive mindset in which the district’s myriad challenges were met, not with the question, “What can I do to help my students succeed?” but, “Why should I do anything more than the contract requires?”
When Hurricane Katrina essentially washed UTNO away, the city was given a clean slate to rebuild our education system without the union’s interference. As a result, schools were allowed to focus on the needs of students and families, rather than the archaic rules and restrictions of a union contract.
Now, UTNO and its overseers at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are trying to force their way back into schools in the Crescent City, as seen in the recent announcements of organizing drives at Lusher Charter School and International High School of New Orleans.
My message to educators is this: Don’t buy the sales pitch. A vote for the union is a vote against your own self-interests because you will be directly supporting an organization that opposes charter schools and denies the progress New Orleans schools have made since Hurricane Katrina.
I. AFT Fights Against Charter Schools
AFT leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to charter schools. In one breath, they will emphatically state they are not opposed to charters, while in the other, they will deride charter schools and their supporters, who AFT president Randi Weingarten recently claimed were part of “a coordinated national effort to decimate public schools.”
While the union’s statements on charter schools might be ambiguous, their behavior is not. AFT spends millions of dollars every year in states across the country trying to block the expansion of charter schools, limit their autonomy, and otherwise hinder their ability to operate.1
In Massachusetts, for example, the American Federation of Teachers has spent the past few months campaigning against Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to raise the state’s charter school cap. Although polls indicated that a majority of voters supported the measure, the union used its influence in the legislature to defeat the bill.
During the campaign, Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union (AFT Local 66), bluntly explained why his organization was fighting to maintain the cap in an editorial for Boston Public Radio station, WBUR:
“I agree that we need to provide more educational options to low-income students, but charter schools are not the way to do this. In fact, their growth is a step toward privatizing public education. Charter schools take opportunities away from the other public schools by cherry-picking the students who come through their doors.”
— AFT (@AFTunion) May 4, 2016
Across the country in California, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (AFT local 1021) is in the midst of an all-out war against charter schools. Over the past year, the union waged an ugly, but ultimately unsuccessful organizing drive at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, L.A.’s largest charter network. In February, UTLA even increased members’ annual dues by nearly one-third (to approximately $1000/year) to pay for their anti-charter strategy, which includes targeting charter school supporters like the philanthropist Eli Broad.
At a protest outside the recently-opened Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles in September, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl told the crowd:
“I challenge Eli Broad to a public debate on public education…Broad and his billionaire pals wreaked havoc on public education in New Orleans. His education ‘reform’ there resulted in massive inequities and civil rights violations for students. Segregation was reinforced and special education students were left behind. We do not intend to stand by and let him do the same thing in Los Angeles.”
But we need look no further than our own backyard to see evidence of AFT’s anti-charter efforts. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), AFT’s state affiliate, supported nearly every anti-charter school bill considered by lawmakers during the current legislative session, just like they do every year.
LFT’s anti-charter credentials are so well established that a recent article in the Times-Picayune – “Teachers unions helped get John Bel Edwards elected. What have they gotten in return?” – noted that the union had little to show for their support of Edwards, since “most of the governor’s more aggressive proposals to rein in or restrict charters and the voucher program haven’t even been able to get out of committee.”
II. AFT Maligns NOLA’s Post-Katrina Reforms
There are plenty of reasons why AFT would feel threatened by the success of New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms.
First of all, it directly contradicts several of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points. It refutes their cynical insistence that schools can do little to raise student achievement in poor communities and it debunks their ludicrous claim that charter schools are destroying public education. Second, New Orleans has witnessed what is probably the most rapid improvement of any urban public school system in the United States and we did it without union involvement. Both of these factors help to explain why the American Federation of Teachers has spent the past ten years maligning the Big Easy’s reforms.
We cannot be experimenting w our students- New Orleans's charter experiment: A preview of the fight over education https://t.co/FKD20SlszD
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) May 9, 2016
AFT began trashing New Orleans’ efforts to rebuild a better school system almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina. In November 2006, AFT, LFT and UTNO published a report entitled, “‘National Model’ Or Flawed Approach? The Post-Katrina New Orleans Public Schools,” in which they actually took a jab at Lusher. Stating that the actions taken by state and local education officials “suggests to black residents that the new New Orleans school system is redlining their neighborhoods,” the report points to Lusher’s expansion to the Fortier building as an example:
“This perception is also strengthened by OPSB’s decision in October 2005 to allow a second campus of Lusher Charter School to occupy the Alcee Fortier High School building. Fortier had previously served a student body that was overwhelmingly African-American. The new Lusher Charter School occupying Fortier’s building is a selective-admission school that is designed to serve the children of faculty and staff at Tulane and other universities in the city.”
Since that time, AFT has released a steady stream of statements calling into question our city’s progress, including a study that falsely claimed, “Evacuee students, who returned to New Orleans and attended RSD schools in 2009 (the schools in the state takeover following Hurricane Katrina), experienced no statistically significant post-Katrina achievement gain measured by value added.”
In 2014, the mouthpiece of the United Federation of Teachers in New York, the largest AFT local in the country, published an article entitled, “The destruction of New Orleans’ public school system” that claimed that the story of New Orleans’ reforms “is one not of triumph, but of pain and tragedy, in which the city’s devastation from Hurricane Katrina was exploited to enact a radical program of school privatization.”
AFT even took advantage of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to cast aspersions against our city. On August 27th of last year, AFT published a statement on its website, “The Truth About New Orleans schools after Katrina,” which stated:
“[P]oliticians and corporate interests are claiming success, but close inspection reveals a different story, a harsher reality. While billions of dollars are going into building new facilities and redesigning school organizations, much of educators’ proven expertise about teaching and learning has been abandoned.”
Moreover, Audra George, the senior AFT official who is overseeing the organizing drives at Lusher and International High School, has nothing nice to say about New Orleans reforms or its charter schools – just look at what she’s said about them in the past:
III. AFT is not an ally
As I’ve shown, AFT is not a friend of charter schools, particularly those in New Orleans. Not only does the union not respect the accomplishments of NOLA educators, they would just as soon be happy to see charter schools abolished. Teachers at Lusher, International High School, and others who may find the union’s promises appealing should ask themselves whether they want their dues going to an organization that has spent millions of dollars fighting against the things that make our public school system work.
At the end of the day, AFT is not an ally.
- I contributed to a recent piece published in The Seventy-Four which exposed an AFT front group targeting wealthy charter school supporters: “United Front: Teachers Unions Quietly Spend Millions on ‘Grassroots’ Groups.” ↩
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
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 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.
Louisiana is ready for a new direction. https://t.co/eDLPMl5tEC
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) April 12, 2017
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.
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…
- Although he called out sick on February 23rd, he noted in a blog post that he actually went to Baton Rouge to attend the final meeting of the Governor’s ESSA Advisory Council;
- He took sick leave on March 29th, but again mentioned on his blog that he was in Baton Rouge at a BESE meeting;
- The same goes for May 18th (he also missed May 17th), when he was “sick” in Baton Rouge to introduce House Bill 536 with State Rep. Vincent Pierre, as he wrote in a blog post ironically titled, “HB-536: Who really puts children first?”
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.
— LAE (@LAEducators) November 16, 2016
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.
— Educate Louisiana (@edlouisiana) November 17, 2016
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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