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The LAROS Papers: Part I An Inside Look at NEA's Effort To Influence Education Policy in Louisiana

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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 is part of broader campaign by the National Education Association and Center For Popular Democracy.

LAROS is part of broader campaign by the National Education Association and Center For Popular Democracy.

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.

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.

The Center for Popular Democracy's board of directors. (Screenshot from Ballotpedia)

The Center for Popular Democracy’s board of directors. (Screenshot from Ballotpedia)

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:

The LAROS Papers: 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.


Explore The LAROS Papers:

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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[…] anti-reform activists called the Louisiana Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. As I documented in a series of blog posts in 2016, I used public records requests to secure more than a year’s worth of the […]

Seth Saavedra

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Seth Saavedra
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NashvilleEdReform

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Nancy Landry

Members of secret group created to oppose accountability to taxpayers for $3.5B investment in K-12 is testifying to delay the plan. #LaEd

Nancy Landry

Members of secret group created to oppose accountability to taxpayers for $3.5B investment in K-12 are testifying to delay the plan. #LaEd

Lynnell Mickelsen

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Lynnell Mickelsen

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Eva Kemp

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Eva Kemp

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Eva Kemp

[email protected]_LA members should take note of who is testifying against the #ESSA plan: secret group they belong to? peterccook.com/2016/11/22/the… #LaEd h

Lynnell Mickelsen

Debbie Schum was part of a secret union-funded group fighting #charters and accountability: peterccook.com/2016/11/22/the… twitter.com/WillSentell/st…

Mallory Padgett

Right.

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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