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A Huge Wake-up Call Losses in Massachusetts, Georgia Point To Need For New Approach

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Anyway you slice it, last week was pretty disastrous for the education reform movement.

On Election Day, two closely watched and fiercely contested ballot initiatives backed by reformers in Massachusetts and Georgia went down in defeat. The former was an effort to lift the Bay State’s charter school cap, while the latter was a proposition by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to create the Opportunity School District (OSD), a state-run entity with the power to takeover perennially failing public schools.

Graphic from the Boston Globe.

Graphic from the Boston Globe.

Opposition to both measures was organized and funded by the teachers unions, and in both cases, the proposals failed spectacularly. When the ballots were tallied, 64% of Massachusetts voters opposed lifting the charter school cap and 60% of Georgia voters rejected Gov. Deal’s takeover plan.

Screenshot from the website of the Georgia Secretary of State.

Screenshot from the website of the Georgia Secretary of State.

Not only are the defeats a huge loss for the tens of thousands of children trapped in underperforming schools in Massachusetts and Georgia, but they are a tremendous public relations coup for the teachers unions, who are currently engaged in a nationwide campaign to curb charter school expansion and rollback the accountability policies of the No Child Left Behind era. In fact, their victories in Massachusetts and Georgia are already being used to rally reform opponents around the unions’ broader effort.

The lopsided results in these two contests should serve as a huge wake-up call for education reform supporters, especially coming in the wake of other recent setbacks, such as the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools. It should be clear at this point that our current approach (or lack thereof) isn’t working. Unless reformers come together, develop new strategies, and combine our efforts, there will be more defeats in store for us in the future.

Here are two important lessons I hope reformers take away from last week…

1. We need a coordinated and aggressive communications strategy

Those of us steeped in the education debate often forget that most Americans have only a vague understanding of what charters are, have no idea what “supplement not supplant” means, and they couldn’t tell you what LIFO is or how it impacts schools. Therefore, it’s incumbent on reformers to breakdown policy issues and communicate their importance to the broader public. Unfortunately, the reform camp hasn’t done that particularly well.

The teachers unions, on the other hand, have launched a full-scale communications offensive and they have a constellation of allied community organizations, advocacy groups, and “media” outlets (many of which happen to receive union funding) to help amplify their key messages.

The response from reformers to this onslaught has been inconsistent and largely reactive. In the absence of a clear counter-narrative, the incessant drumbeat of the teachers unions’ talking points assumes the illusion of truth in the minds of the public. Moreover, a recent Pew Research Center report found that 20% of social media users say they’ve modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw online.

The Massachusetts charter cap fight illustrates how a disciplined and consistent messaging campaign can sway public opinion. A May poll conducted by Suffolk University found that nearly half of likely voters were in favor of lifting the cap. However, by the time Election Day rolled around, that support had fallen dramatically.

Why? The “No on 2” campaign was led by a single group, Save Our Public Schools, a referendum committee organized and funded by the the unions, that had concise messages they repeated ad nauseam. Meanwhile, the pro-charter campaign was waged by five separate committees, each sending their own messages and muddling it in the process.

2. We need to pick our battles wisely

Another lesson reformers should take from last week’s defeats is relatively simple: Don’t pick a fight that you’re unlikely to win.

While I supported the effort to lift the cap in Massachusetts, I was perplexed why so many reform organizations decided to focus the bulk of their energy and resources battling it out in a labor-friendly state where the teachers unions hold considerable political influence. It should have been clear from the get-go that reformers faced an uphill climb, but nevertheless they poured nearly $21 million into the charter cap fight, narrowly outspending their union counterparts. In the end, they had little to show for it.

Compare that to the contest over the Opportunity School District in Georgia, where the teachers unions are far weaker because state law prohibits collective bargaining by public employees. From a political standpoint, the prospects for success in Georgia were more favorable for reformers than they were in Massachusetts and yet they directed much less attention and money to the OSD fight. In total, OSD supporters spent $2.6 million during the campaign, while the unions put up nearly twice that amount – $4.7 million – to defeat the proposal. One wonders whether the outcome might have been different if some of the resources that went to Massachusetts went down south instead.

Graphic from Education Next.

Graphic from Education Next.

Admittedly, the teachers unions bring several advantages to the fight. Not only do they have hundreds of millions of dollars on available to defend their interests and expand their influence across the country, but as we saw in Georgia and Massachusetts, they can mobilize their members to knock on doors, hand out leaflets, and show up at rallies.

Given that fact, reformers need all hands on deck when it comes to fighting for better schools. We need a consistent and proactive messaging plan that counters misinformation and takes the fight to our opponents. It also requires that pro-reform groups coalesce behind a coherent strategy that uses a cost/benefit approach in deciding where to focus their efforts. Although the children stuck in failing schools in Georgia and Massachusetts lost last week, far more kids across the country will lose if we don’t take steps now to turn things around.

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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Peter C. Cook

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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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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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