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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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Princess T

One of main takeaways for #edreform supporters from last week’s losses in #Georgia & #Massachusetts: pcook.me/YO27 #LiftTheCap htt

Alex Hernandez

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Alex Hernandez

https://twitter.com/petercook/status/799384838612586496#favorited-by-14300790

Bing Howell

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Bing Howell

https://twitter.com/petercook/status/799021459171659780#favorited-by-19480461

Elizabeth Ling

Results like these should give #edreform supporters pause & force us to rethink our approach: pcook.me/5B3C #edreform https://t.co

Chris Stewart

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Chris Stewart

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Ryan Booth

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Ryan Booth

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Peter C. Cook

We often miss that part.

Ned Stanley

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Ned Stanley

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John Alford

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John Alford

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Justin C. Cohen

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Justin C. Cohen

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Charters

A Sibling Dispute In Court Could Spell Trouble for Smothers Academy Charter School's CEO Is Accused Of Financial Impropriety In Lawsuit Filed By Brother

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The CEO of a local charter management organization, which was investigated by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) after a report on this blog raised questions about its management and financial practices, is being accused of financial impropriety in a lawsuit filed by his own brother.

On March 28th, I published a post – “Red Flags Everywhere” – which highlighted troubling issues at Smothers Academy, a Type 2 charter school in Jefferson Parish. It noted that the school appeared to be in violation of state ethics laws prohibiting nepotism, seeing that Smothers Academy’s CEO Damon Smothers had hired his brother, Kemic Smothers, as the organization’s legal counsel and director of procurement. The piece also drew attention to several concerns surfaced in Smothers Academy’s F.Y. 2017 audited financial statements, including the assertion that Damon Smothers had spent over $9300 on the school’s credit card for personal expenses.


Read my original piece on Smothers Academy:

Red Flags Everywhere | PE + CO

A review of documents from a Jefferson Parish charter operator that applied to run a historic high school in New Orleans has revealed that the organization could be violating state ethics laws and has been flagged for serious deficiencies in its management and accounting practices.


 
A week later, LDOE officials sent a letter to Eddie Williams, president of the board of directors of Smothers Academy, requesting documentation related to the problems identified in their audit. On April 17th, LDOE sent a second letter to Williams, which formally notified the board that Smothers Academy was in violation of the state’s nepotism laws and instructed them to terminate the employment of either Damon or Kemic Smothers by June 30th. As a result, Kemic was fired that same day.

Yet it appears that he is refusing to go without a fight.

Court documents reveal that Kemic is now suing his brother Damon (along with Smothers Academy, Inc., two members of the board of directors, and the school’s CFO Mark DeBose) for breach of contract, violation of the whistleblower statute, retaliatory discharge, and fraud.

Smothers Academy CEO Damon Smothers (left) is being sued by his brother Kemic (right), who previously served as the school’s legal counsel and director of procurement.

In a petition filed with the Orleans Parish Civil District Court in July, Kemic claims that he was summoned to an April 5th meeting with his brother and CFO Mark DuBose in which they revealed that Damon had “gifted himself” $20,000 drawn from the school’s bank account without the knowledge or consent of the board of directors. They then asked Kemic to devise a way for Damon to keep the money without having to inform the board or repay it. However, Kemic refused, noting that the unauthorized allocation of funds was almost certainly illegal.

Kemic goes on to assert that he was subsequently terminated on April 17th – as opposed to June 30th when his contract officially ended – for refusing to help Damon hide the $20,000 he had taken from the school’s bank account. According to the lawsuit, “Damon Smothers insinuated that Kemic Smothers was not a team player and that he should have found a way for Damon Smothers to avoid repaying the $20,000.00.”

It should be noted that accusations made in Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit are simply that: accusations. The court has not ruled on the merits of the case. Nevertheless, in light of the board’s lax financial oversight and Damon’s questionable use of the school’s credit card, these latest allegations should be investigated to ensure that Smothers Academy administrators are not enriching themselves at the expense of their students.


Read Kemic Smothers’ lawsuit against his brother:

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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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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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