Over the past year, a small group of education leaders from across Louisiana has been secretly plotting to curtail charter school expansion, weaken the state’s accountability policies, and rewrite the law passed earlier this year to return New Orleans schools to local control.
The group, which calls itself the Louisiana Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (LAROS), has received financial support from the National Education Association (NEA) and training from the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy organization based in Brooklyn, NY that has deep ties to both NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
LAROS’ membership includes five appointees to Governor John Bel Edwards’ Advisory Council on the Every Student Succeeds Act, officials from the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) and Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), and leaders from the Louisiana School Boards Association and Louisiana Association of School Principals. The organization also counts school board members, community advocates, and several well-known education reform critics among its ranks.
These are just some of the revelations found in The LAROS Papers, a collection of the group’s internal emails, meeting minutes, and other documents that were obtained through public records requests and cover their activities from September 2015 through August 2016.
The LAROS Papers provide an inside look at how national teachers unions seek to influence state education policies through the use of ostensibly local, community-based groups. While LAROS presents itself as a coalition of “parents and caregivers,” “students and community members,” and “educators and school staff,” the documents make clear that their agenda is largely driven by NEA and the Center for Popular Democracy, two organizations that are currently waging a campaign to stem charter school growth and dismantle No Child Left Behind-era accountability policies across the country.
The first rule of LAROS is: You do not talk about LAROS
Of course, bringing that campaign to Louisiana presents a significant challenge for the teachers unions and their allies. The state is regarded as a leader within the education reform movement and both accountability and charter schools enjoy broad, bipartisan support among voters and policymakers.
Over the past decade, reform opponents have repeatedly tried to restrict charter growth and roll back accountability, only to see those efforts end in defeat. Perhaps that’s why NEA and the Center for Popular Democracy decided to take a covert approach with LAROS, by quietly recruiting education leaders to the group, training them on messages and strategy, and coordinating their efforts from behind-the-scenes.
The LAROS Papers show that the group intentionally tries to hide their work under a cloak of secrecy. Members are expected to sign a pledge that includes a promise to “keep internal conversations and documents private and only distribute information that is approved by the LAROS members in its regular meetings.”
When you see who’s involved with the organization, the emphasis on secrecy begins to make sense. Although their numbers have fluctuated over the past year, documents show LAROS has around 30 core members, including several well-known education policy advocates, such as Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Principals and Scott Richard, head of the Louisiana School Boards Association.
A handful of school district officials are LAROS members, including St. Tammany Parish School Board members Jack Loup and Mary Bellisario, as well as West Feliciana Superintendent Hollis Milton, who has emerged as a leading critic of State Superintendent John White in recent years, while dropping not-so-subtle hints that he’s interested in White’s job.
Several outspoken education reform critics from across Louisiana have also joined the group. Among them are Kathleen Espinoza and Ann Burruss, the co-founders of Power of Public Education Lafayette, former LAE executive director Mike Deshotels, and New Orleans education activists Karran Harper Royal, Raynard Sanders, and Phoebe Ferguson.
— Deborah Meaux (@dmeaux50) April 2, 2016
Finally, as you might expect, several LAROS members are officials with LAE, NEA’s state affiliate in Louisiana, although two of their counterparts from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers are also participants: LFT president Larry Carter and chief of staff Marcus Fontenot.
Ties to national teachers union organizations
However, LAROS’ ties to the teachers unions don’t end there. One member of the group is Eric Lotke, who works on NEA’s Strategic Operations team. In the union’s 2016 Program and Administration Handbook, the Strategic Operations division is described as follows:
“The work of the Strategic Operations team is intended to understand the who, what, where, how, and why of the various education reform actors: privateers, social conservatives, libertarians, and neo-liberal reformers, utilizing this information to build better offense/defense strategies – nationally and in the states.”
In addition, the de facto leader of LAROS over the past year has been Kyle Serrette, director of education justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, an organization that has received significant funding from the two national teachers unions.
In F.Y. 2015, for example, the Center received a combined total of $735,000 from NEA and AFT. Moreover, AFT president Randi Weingarten served on the organization’s board of directors, although her name only recently disappeared from the Center for Popular Democracy website.
NEA has also provided funds to train and support LAROS members. According to meeting notes from March, NEA flew five members of the group to Atlanta to attend a joint conference on ESSA and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.
The documents also reveal that long-time anti-charter activist Karran Harper Royal – who has emerged as the public face of LAROS in the past few months – is actually being paid by NEA. Meeting minutes from June indicate that LAE president Debbie Meaux requested funds from NEA to hire Royal as the part-time coordinator of the group.
In an interview with Andrew Vanacore of The Advocate, Royal acknowledged that she had been hired by LAROS. However, she refused to answer the question of whether her salary ultimately came from NEA, telling Vanacore it was “nobody’s business.”
Coming up in Part II: How LAROS planned to stem charter school growth, influence accountability policies, and rewrite Act 91.
Read Part II:
Note: This is the second installment of a four-part series. You can read Part I here. When Kyle Serrette learned back in February that Louisiana was on the verge of winning an $8 million charter school grant from U.S. Department of Education, he wasn’t happy about the news.