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Mississippi Learning? Not If The Southern Poverty Law Center Has Its Way

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We have an old saying down here in Louisiana: Thank God for Mississippi. It’s a cynical expression alluding to the fact that no matter how poorly Louisiana fares in national rankings of social and economic health, things for our neighbors in the Magnolia State are almost inevitably worse.

That’s especially true when it comes to indicators for children. Just last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Mississippi dead last in its 2016 Kids Count Data Book, an annual assessment of state trends in child well-being (for what it’s worth, Louisiana ranked an embarrassing 48th).

Graphic from the 2016 Kids Count Data Book.

Graphic from the 2016 Kids Count Data Book.

In terms of education, the study paints a gloomy picture: In 2015, only 26% of Mississippi’s fourth graders were proficient in reading and only 22% of eighth graders were proficient in math. Moreover, nearly a third of Mississippi high schoolers failed to graduate on time.

Statistics for the state’s African-American students are even more egregious. A recent report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that only 3% of black high school graduates in Mississippi earned a college-ready ACT score in 2015 and only 1.2% of black graduates scored a “3” or higher on an AP exam in 2014.

In an effort to help reverse these dismal educational outcomes, state lawmakers passed legislation in 2013 that paved the way for the state’s first charter schools by establishing a statewide Charter School Authorizer Board and setting a high bar for applicants. Since that time, two charters have launched in Jackson – ReImagine Prep and Midtown Public – and the authorizer board is reviewing proposals for four additional schools (including one from the New Orleans-based organization, Collegiate Academies) that would open within the next two years.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant visits a classroom at Reimagine Prep, one of two charters operating in the state.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant visits a classroom at Reimagine Prep, one of two charters operating in the state.

However, a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) could derail those plans and shutter the two charters already serving students. The suit, which SPLC filed on behalf of seven Jackson Public School District parents, claims that Mississippi’s charter school law violates the state constitution. As Mississippi Today explained:

“The ultimate goal of the lawsuit is for the courts to declare the funding mechanism of charters unconstitutional, similar to what happened when the Washington Supreme Court ruled its state’s charter school law unconstitutional based on its funding streams.”

If successful, SPLC’s lawsuit could prevent thousands of children in Mississippi – particularly low-income students of color – from obtaining the quality public education they have long been denied.

SPLC’s Hidden Anti-Charter Agenda

Some may find it strange that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which gained prominence in the 1980s for its legal battles against white supremacist groups, is leading a fight against Mississippi’s charter schools. But over time, SPLC has strayed from its original mission – fighting hate groups and protecting civil rights – to embrace other causes, including opposition to education reform. In the past few years, SPLC has filed several lawsuits against school districts and charter management organizations that appeared to be motivated by an ideological agenda rather than the desire to redress legitimate legal claims.

SPLC's headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.

SPLC’s headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.

Indeed, SPLC’s current legal challenge in Mississippi seems to be part of an intentional anti-charter strategy. An education reform advocate in Jackson recently told me that the organization devised a legal plan to challenge the state’s charter school law before seeking out public school parents to serve as plaintiffs:

“It’s for sure coming out of SPLC’s HQ in Montgomery…I would argue it’s not very local because they struggled for months to find parents as plaintiffs. Three [plaintiffs] are affiliated with Kellogg and Parents for Public Schools, a.k.a. notorious anti-charter organizations in Mississippi.”

Needless to say, the plaintiffs SPLC recruited for their lawsuit are not low-income parents whose children would benefit most from charter schools. Lead plaintiff Charles Araujo is a social worker and faculty member at Jackson State University. Another plaintiff, John Sewell, is Director of Communications and Marketing at Millsaps College and served on the board of Parents for Public Schools Mississippi, a noted anti-charter group. Cassandra Welchlin, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for State Senate in 2013, also joined the suit. In short, a small group of privileged individuals are trying to block Mississippi’s poor children from attending high-quality public schools, which as history shows, is something of a long-standing tradition in the state.

For their part, SPLC officials insist they have nothing against charter schools and are not seeking to shut them down. Will Bardwell, the attorney overseeing SPLC’s case, told the Clarion-Ledger :

“We don’t want the charter schools act struck down. This lawsuit is about the constitution. If the Legislature can find a way to comply with the constitution and keep them open, we would applaud them.”

Jody Owens, managing attorney for SPLC’s Mississippi office, reiterated that message, telling the paper, “We want to remedy this in a way that is least destructive for students that are in charters.”

When Will Bardwell isn't trying to deny educational options from poor kids, he's harassing Scottish greenskeepers.

When Will Bardwell isn’t trying to deny poor kids educational options, he bothers Scottish greenskeepers.


Intermission: Otis Spann’s “Home To Mississippi”


SPLC’s Pattern of Anti-Charter Behavior

Yet in spite of their assurances, there is reason to believe that the ultimate aim of the Southern Poverty Law Center is to bring Mississippi’s nascent charter school experiment to an end. A look at SPLC’s aggressive effort to disrupt and discredit charter schools in New Orleans provides evidence of its clear anti-charter bias.

Back in the fall of 2013, a series of student protests broke out at a trio of schools managed by Collegiate Academies, an acclaimed charter network in New Orleans known for its success in getting students to college (and, as noted above, one of the organizations currently seeking a charter in Mississippi). It was soon discovered that a small group of activists – including a woman who posed as a freelance journalist to gain access to the school – were inciting the walkouts. They also urged parents to withdraw their children en masse from Collegiate’s schools during the second week of December. Fortunately, when the day came for the mass exodus, only two parents actually withdrew their children from school and the disruptions ended as suddenly as they began.

The planned exodus from Collegiate Academies was a huge flop.

The planned exodus from Collegiate Academies was a huge flop.

Throughout the debacle, there were indications that SPLC was playing a behind-the-scenes role in the protests. They issued public statements in support of the walkouts, including an open letter SPLC sent to Collegiate Academies’ board of directors. I also published a blog post at the time showing that a protest letter purportedly from students was actually written by Eden Heilman, the head of SPLC’s New Orleans office.

Shortly thereafter, a reader sent me internal SPLC emails revealing that the organization was deeply involved in planning and organizing the protests. I never published the information because things at Collegiate Academies died down, but now that SPLC is trying to undermine Mississippi’s charter law, they can help shed light on the organization’s anti-charter agenda.

From an email circulated among SPLC's New Orleans staff on November 23, 2013.

From an email circulated among SPLC’s New Orleans staff on November 23, 2013.

Of the documents I received, the most damning is an email circulated among SPLC’s New Orleans staff on November 23, 2013. Attached to the email were photos from a radio interview at WBOK-AM in which students involved in the protests trashed Collegiate Academies.

Photo from the radio interview at WBOK-AM.

Photo from the radio interview at WBOK-AM.

The email also included photos from a strategy meeting held the same day at SPLC’s offices with students leading the walkouts at Collegiate Academies. The pictures show SPLC staff members – including managing attorney Eden Heilman – conferring with students over the course of the day.

Eden Heilman, managing attorney of SPLC's New Orleans office, at the protest strategy meeting.

Eden Heilman (seated), managing attorney of SPLC’s New Orleans office, at the protest strategy meeting.

They also capture two whiteboards with notes from the meeting. One provides an overview of the agenda, which lists as their targets: Collegiate Academies, the Recovery School District, and the principals at two of Collegiate Academies’ schools.

The "targets" listed on the agenda from SPLC's Nov. 2013 meeting include Collegiate Academies, RSD, and two principals.

The “targets” listed on the agenda from SPLC’s Nov. 2013 meeting include Collegiate Academies, RSD, and two principals.

The other whiteboard outlines their tactics for disrupting Collegiate’s three schools, one of which is “a public shame campaign” through social media. Other tactics include a plan to “mob” staff meetings and circulate petitions and flyers in student binders.

Among the tactics devised to attack Collegiate Academies was a "public shame campaign," a plan to disrupt staff meetings, and put flyers in student binders.

Among the tactics devised to attack Collegiate Academies: a “public shame campaign,” staff meeting disruptions, and flyers in student binders.

The photos make clear that SPLC was not a disinterested party simply working to protect the rights of students. On the contrary, SPLC was pro-actively trying to create chaos at an acclaimed charter school network in order to discredit the Recovery School District’s reform efforts in New Orleans. In light of this fact, I wouldn’t trust SPLC officials in Mississippi when they claim, “We don’t want the charter schools act struck down.”

Why is @splcenter trying to shut down #charters in #Mississippi? Click to Tweet

Read SPLC’s Lawsuit in Mississippi:

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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Seth Saavedra

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Seth Saavedra

https://twitter.com/petercook/status/804028860639678465#favorited-by-15772627

Crisgw

tag:twitter.com,2013:766495026025144320_favorited_by_3009464528

Crisgw

https://twitter.com/petercook/status/766495026025144320#favorited-by-3009464528

Crisgw

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Crisgw

https://twitter.com/petercook/status/761310568368054272#favorited-by-3009464528

How Is My Kid Doing?

Worth the read. And enjoy the intermission: “Home to Mississippi” by Otis Spann twitter.com/petercook/stat…

André-Tascha Lammé

I am bloody disappointed, @splcenter. @petercook on their efforts to block non-privileged kids from an equal edu. peterccook.com/2016/08/01/mis…

Peter Cunningham

Why is a civil rights org. @splcenter trying to close Mississippi charters serving low-income Black kids? @petercook peterccook.com/2016/08/01/mis…

Jeff Amy

Interesting story, but I object to idea that all plaintiffs in lawsuit are “privileged.” #msedu twitter.com/petercook/stat…

Ravi Gupta

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Ravi Gupta

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Derrell Bradford

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Derrell Bradford

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André-Tascha Lammé

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André-Tascha Lammé

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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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