Bill Murphy has spent the past 16 years as a K-12 educator. He got his start as a special education teacher in rural Louisiana. He has since worked as a teacher and special education director at a charter school in Massachusetts and as the principal of what became one of the highest-performing traditional public schools in Baltimore, MD. Bill has worked in senior district roles and in charter management organizations since returning to Louisiana with his wife, a native New Orleanian, and their son, who currently attends Lusher.
Recently, I attended several meetings at which the potential unionization of teachers at Lusher was discussed. Attending such meetings is in some ways a luxury, just as is the fact that my family had the opportunity to choose between two strong public charter options for our son. I know I am in an enviable position of privilege relative to many families in New Orleans.
At these meetings, debate occurred that was often full of bluster and emotional appeal but a bit light on specifics and rigorous thought. In many ways it was predictable and disheartening as this is generally how these pro-/anti- union discussions go. However, one thing struck me as deeply problematic and it was directly related to the idea that being a Lusher parent is a position of privilege.
The pro-union voices asserted time and again that parents should have no stake in this discussion. Parent input was unwelcome by a number of staff and board members, all of whom were pro-unionization. Parents who had any opinion were described as not trusting teachers, meddling, and infringing on teacher “rights.”
It was one of those times that, as a parent in New Orleans who has secured a spot at a desirable public school, I felt like I was being told, “You’re lucky you got in to Lusher. If you don’t like something, what are you going to do? Transfer and compromise your child’s education so you can take the moral high road? Good luck. There are 200 kids waiting for his spot.”
Gratitude felt for the opportunity to send a child to a more-desired school option, however, ought not render parents mute. The idea that parents should be silent in the face of a decision that will have dramatic ramifications for their child’s education is alarming. Parents should have an opinion on this and every matter of schooling because we are the clients and consumers in our system of schools. The fact that the pro-union side is asserting otherwise should give everyone pause.
If someone naively thinks that a child’s school experience is not influenced by the presence or absence of a nationally-affiliated union, they are delusional. Having worked in multiple districts with nationally-affiliated unions, I know with certitude that unionization deeply impacts a child’s experience of school.
I am intimately familiar with teachers’ unions. My parents are both retired educators and career-long members of the New York State United Teachers. As a graduate student, I interned with a national union. As an early career teacher, I taught in a school at which I was a union member, and as a principal, I worked in a district with both a teachers’ union and a principals’ union. Based on these experiences, I consider myself to be agnostic in a pro- or anti- union debate. However, unionization can exacerbate rather than ameliorate imperfections when it is done poorly. I am confident that without the watchful eye of informed parents, nationally-affiliated unionization will almost certainly have a negative effect on the quality of education received by the children of Lusher.
Parents should monitor closely the construction of any policies or contracts and ensure all people involved keep such documents child-centered. It should worry the entire Lusher community the national union applying their agenda to Lusher is not talking about children and their needs. Their focus is entirely on the wants and needs of a national organization and a subset of Lusher adults. This is not an attempt to improve the experience of children at the school or in our city. It is taking Lusher’s focus off of doing what is logical, expedient, effective, and child-centered.
Similarly, the focus is increasingly not about local teacher voices. This is because nationally-affiliated unionization often sacrifices the individual voices of nearly all teachers by providing the artifice of increased influence through collective bargaining. The voice of local teachers is subordinated to a national agenda and what few local concerns are able to gain traction reflect not general needs or wants, but the specialized interest of persons who are often the weakest teachers in the building.
Many of the most highly effective teachers at Lusher have stated publically time and again that they feel they have a strong voice in the running of their school and ample opportunities to exert teacher leadership. Unfortunately, what appears to be a small group of teachers, backed by a national union with a clear agenda, are demanding more influence. It seems then that this is really about power and control, and about equating getting one’s way with being respected.
The problem is, in a professional setting, one can be treated with dignity while one’s suggestions might not carry much weight because they lack merit. If one wants professional gravitas it should be earned. It cannot be granted through a 77-page document that reflects the wants and needs of a national organization and ignores the many teachers who already felt they had sufficient agency. This is the illusion of respect. Such a contract drives to the least common denominator and fails to elevate the strongest professionals by subordinating them to a national agenda.
The national agenda present in the standard nationally-crafted union contract should concern all members of the Lusher community. Typical contracts create procedures so onerous and limiting that children’s education is often sacrificed. They also create odd and arbitrary rules that inhibit rather than enhance a school’s functioning.
For example, as an early career teacher, the contract under which I worked prevented me from breaking up fights in my classroom. That contract also stated that the principal could only hold one staff meeting or professional development session a month, for no more than an hour, and always on the first or second Monday after school. It precluded him from visiting my room unannounced and, even more bizarre, disallowed teachers from being made to reach above the top of their earlobes while performing work functions. As a result, the worst teachers became rules-mongers who simultaneously clung to the letter of the contract, but blamed the absence of more frequent professional development and class observations as an excuse for their poor performance. They treated teachers who volunteered for extra duty, agreed to submit lesson plans for review, or reached above their earlobes, as pariahs.
Similarly, as an administrator in a district operating under a nationally-crafted contract, our textbook selections were subject to faculty votes in which all teachers, regardless of demonstrated knowledge or skill level, had an equal say. Moreover, prescriptive timelines of evaluation, coaching, and paperwork completion were so specific that a teacher could avoid consequences for inappropriate behavior for months by simply calling out sick on the day on which I’d scheduled their formal observation.
This meant that the weakest teacher in a school took the principal more than two years to terminate. Even though that teacher failed to follow simple directions, completed no lesson plans, and occasionally used racist and sexist terms when referring to children, by manipulating the timeline, they could prevent swifter action. Imagine the toll such a teacher’s presence takes on his colleagues, serving as a constant affront to their work and forcing them to mitigate the damage he is doing.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming vote, parents should be vigilant in making sure similar policies are not enshrined in a collective bargaining agreement. Board members must take seriously their duty to govern Lusher in a manner that is best for our children. As such, they must prevent the sorts of contract stipulations I’ve described. Parents should be encouraged to voice their opinions regarding any agreement.
I understand why some parents are hesitant to voice their concerns. Despite our ability to exercise school choice, our city’s recent history has not always been one of educators listening thoughtfully to families. Even those of us operating from a position of racial and economic privilege, or who send our children to sought-after schools, are often treated as if we should “be grateful and be quiet.” I wish we had 50 schools to which I’d send my son so that the threat we might “vote with our feet” carried some weight. Our schools have made a great deal of progress, but more choices of varied character and greater strength are needed so that our “vote” will count. In the meantime, neither the presence nor absence of options is a reason to be quiet when we have concerns about our children’s school.
I also understand why some parents are willing to accept the assertion that they should not have an opinion about a nationally-affiliated union at Lusher because they love and trust teachers. My child has an excellent teacher. She is thoughtful and smart, making good choices about what is instructionally and socio-emotionally best for my son. She tolerates his idiosyncrasies with grace and aplomb. She is kind and carefully considers issues of race when teaching our biracial child. I trust her. I want her to be treated with the dignity that she deserves. Because she is really good at her job, and only because she is really good at her job, I also want her to have a strong voice in the running of the Lusher.
It is because I respect my son’s teacher that I do not want to see her subjected to a collective bargaining agreement that puts a national agenda ahead of her individual agency. While I think neither Lusher nor the New Orleans education landscape are perfect, a nationally-affiliated collective bargaining agreement will not serve her well. I know this because we have thousands of national test cases in which such contracts are a hurdle for excellent teachers. Sometimes the circumstances under which one is working are so extreme that what is gained by joining a union is greater than what is lost. This is not one of those circumstances.
I have heard many concerns from Lusher teachers that seemed sincere, legitimate, and logical. Even the weightiest ones though could be fixed by creating a teacher advisory committee with access to the board and the CEO. Concerns could also easily be addressed by creating more explicit and collaboratively-developed staff handbooks including processes for airing concerns.
I see no reason for a nationally-affiliated union and collective bargaining agreement, but that’s my opinion and perhaps teachers will choose differently. I hope that whatever the outcome, the pro-union contingent will cease the bitterly ironic practice of demanding more “voice” while telling parents to “be grateful and be quiet.”
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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