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Be Careful What You Wish For Reformers Are Poised To Win A Majority On NOLA's School Board

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For more than ten years, critics of the Recovery School District (RSD) have attempted to portray the state takeover of schools from the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) as an assault on democracy.

“RSD does what it chooses and does not have to answer to the public,” Rev. Dwight Webster complained to the Times-Picayune in 2013. “OPSB is elected by the people. There’s accountability. There’s redress.”

While critics never explained how the dysfunctional pre-Katrina school board reflected the “will of the people,” their message appealed to a simplistic, if widely-held and wholly American belief in the infallibility of the ballot box. As such, education reform opponents incessantly hammered the point when attacking the RSD. However, now that the RSD is finally preparing to return schools to local control, these same critics appear to have lost all interest in the democratic process.

Act 91, which Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law earlier this spring, establishes a plan for RSD to hand back control of schools to OPSB by July 1, 2018. That means the upcoming OPSB elections in November are an opportunity to elect board members who will soon govern a unified New Orleans public school system.

Yet when the qualifying period for the elections ended on July 22nd, the biggest surprise was that vocal reform opponents had not come out in force to run for the board’s seven seats. In fact, the contests drew only a handful of candidates.

Two incumbents – John Brown in District 1 and Sarah Usdin in District 3 – were reelected outright after they failed to draw opponents. Ben Kleban, founder of New Orleans College Prep, a network of charter schools in the city, was automatically elected to represent District 5 on Monday after his sole opponent dropped out of the race. Finally, long-time board member Cynthia Cade, a persistent critic of the city’s school reforms, was disqualified from running for reelection after failing to pay taxes for the past several years. As a result, her sole opponent, Ethan Ashley, a reform supporter who currently works for the Urban League, became the board’s representative for District 2 today.

From left: John Brown, Sarah Usdin, Ben Kleban, and Ethan Ashley.

From left: John Brown, Sarah Usdin, Ben Kleban, and Ethan Ashley.

Of the remaining three races, two are practically shoe-ins for the incumbents. In District 6, Woody Koppel, a reliable reform vote who’s been on OPSB since 2008, faces political newcomer David Alvarez. On the other side of town in District 7, Nolan Marshall, Jr., who is considered a “swing vote” on the board, faces two opponents: Kwame Smith, who Marshall soundly defeated in 2012 and another newcomer, Alvin Crusto, whose positions are unknown.

Which brings us to what might possibly be the most interesting school board contest this fall: The fight for District 4, which covers most of Algiers and a narrow strip on the East Bank extending from the French Quarter to Bywater. The district is currently represented by Leslie Ellison, whose term on the board has been marred by controversy, particularly in regard to her comments on gays and lesbians.

In March 2012, Ellison testified before the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee in Baton Rouge in support of a bill that would have allowed charter schools to discriminate against LGBT individuals. She subsequently insinuated that being gay or lesbian is a “choice” in a heated exchange with an openly gay colleague on the school board.

She also backed former OPSB president Ira Thomas’ effort to oust Interim Superintendent Stan Smith almost immediately after the current board took office. His coup ultimately failed and Thomas was eventually indicted on corruption charges last year.

Ellison will be facing off this fall against two candidates, neither of whom have run for office before: lawyer Moe Reed and Walter Umrani, a supervisor at Chevron and volunteer with the conflict-resolution group, New Orleans Peacekeepers.1

In any case, reformers appear poised to capture a majority of OPSB seats come November without much of a fight from those RSD opponents who spent the past decade demanding the return of schools. It suggests that at the end of the day, most New Orleanians are less worried about district governance than they are about ensuring that we build upon the success we’ve seen in our public schools.


Check out this OPSB Election Map

GREEN districts are held by pro-reform members; YELLOW districts are held by swing votes; RED are held by anti-reform members. Click on the map to learn more about the race in each district.


  1. CORRECTION: I previously said Moe Reed was the president of the New Orleans NAACP, but that was actually his father, Morris Reed. My apologies for the mistake. 

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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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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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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Charters

PSA: NAACP Charter School Hearing Tonight Don't Let Critics Distort The Story In New Orleans

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Tonight, the NAACP will be holding a hearing on charter schools at the New Orleans City Council Chambers (1300 Perdido Street) starting at 5:30pm. It will be the sixth hearing that the NAACP has held in cities across the country following their inexplicable call for a moratorium on charter schools last fall.

Flyer for tonight’s NAACP hearing.

The NAACP’s call for a moratorium has been roundly criticized by education reform advocates, as well as by the editorial board of The New York Times, which called the move “a misguided attack” by an organization that “has struggled in recent years to win over younger African-Americans, who often see the group as out of touch.” The Washington Post was even more scathing in their take on the moratorium, linking the NAACP’s recent turn against charters to the substantial financial support the group has received from the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.

Angry charter school parents from Memphis confronted NAACP officials at their national meeting in Cincinnati last fall.

In any case, NAACP officials have apparently decided to dispense with any pretense of objectivity at tonight’s meeting by inviting a number of outspoken charter opponents to speak, including:

  • Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola who filed a specious civil rights complaint against a local charter network that was eventually dismissed by the Louisiana Department of Education for lack of evidence;
     
  • Walter Umrani, an anti-charter candidate for the District 4 seat on the Orleans Parish School Board who received only 13% of the vote;
     
  • Willie Zanders, the lead attorney in the class action lawsuit against the Orleans Parish School Board and State of Louisiana over the layoffs of school board employees following Hurricane Katrina that was dismissed by the Louisiana Supreme Court;
     
  • Adrienne Dixson, a former education professor from Illinois who recently compared the education landscape in New Orleans to “The Hunger Games”;


  • State Rep. Joe Bouie who has used his position on the House Education Committee to spread misinformation about charter schools and engage in obstructionism, as seen below.

Charter school supporters need to attend tonight’s NAACP hearing to ensure that the truth is heard and that the positive impact that charters have had on the children of this city is not denied.

I hope to see you there!

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