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

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Note: This is the second installment of a two-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.

After all, he had spent the previous six months working to establish the Louisiana Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (LAROS), a secret group of education leaders dedicated to securing a statewide moratorium on charter schools. Now that LAROS was ready to implement its plan to slow the growth of charters, the federal government was going to give state education officials a pile of money to expand them. Something needed to be done to stop it.

Kyle Serrette, director of education justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy.

Kyle Serrette, director of education justice campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy.

Serrette sent an email to LAROS members asking if anyone had connections inside the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) who could tell them whether the grant had been finalized. If the terms were still being negotiated, Serrette wanted the group “to try to stop millions of new dollars from flowing into Louisiana to start lots more charters most likely in cities other than NOLA.”

In response, Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) president Debbie Meaux immediately reached out to David Shepherd, director of charter development at LDOE, to check on the status of the grant application.

As it turned out, they were too late – the grant was a done deal. Nevertheless, the episode shows that LAROS was willing to use any means necessary to fight charter schools, even if that meant sabotaging a grant that would bring millions of dollars to Louisiana.

LAROS’ Two-Tier Strategy For Fighting Charter Schools

This aggressive, no-holds-barred approach should be familiar to education policy observers. It’s a defining characteristic of the broader anti-charter school campaign being waged by the teachers unions all across the country. The LAROS Papers make clear that the group is not only part of that broader union-driven campaign, but was established primarily to fight charter schools, although its focus expanded to other issues over time.

St. Tammany School Board President Jack Loup has been a member of LAROS since its inception and attended the group’s first meeting in September 2015. In an email to fellow board member Mary Bellisario about the meeting, Loup noted: “This new group is excited about adding groups and individuals to assist in securing a moratorium on Charters [sic].”

However, that excitement was tempered by the political realities LAROS faced in securing a moratorium in Louisiana, where support for charters remains strong and previous proposals to block charter expansion in the legislature have failed to make it out of committee. Recognizing that a direct push for a statewide moratorium would likely end in failure, the group instead developed a two-tier strategy for incrementally building toward that goal by initially focusing their efforts on local school boards.

One part of their strategy is to build support across the state for a moratorium on charters by persuading local school boards to adopt a resolution that LAROS members drafted and revised over several months. Although framed as much-needed accountability and transparency measures for charter schools, minutes from a LAROS meeting last December show that the resolution was intentionally crafted to rob charter schools of the autonomy that allows them to be successful.

That aim is also reflected in the resolution’s endorsement of a series of charter school policies developed by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a think-tank at Brown University that has received funding from the national teachers unions. Because the so-called Annenberg standards place onerous restrictions on charter schools that would make it nearly impossible for them to operate, they have been heavily promoted by both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA).

Community schools: The Teachers Unions’ Panacea

The second, concurrent part of LAROS’ strategy is to convince local school boards to embrace community schools, which they are pushing as an alternative to charters. Community schools are defined as schools with an “integrated focus on academics, youth development, family support, health and social services and community development.” Although nearly all public schools (including charters) provide some wraparound services to students, community schools are intended to be a “one stop shop” for families where they can access things like health care, family resources, counseling, and adult education services all under one roof.

Not surprisingly, AFT and NEA have been heavily promoting community schools as a panacea for all that ills public education since the model neatly aligns with the unions’ “poverty trumps education” argument – i.e., that schools and educators cannot be held accountable for the achievement of low-income children.

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A panacea for public education: The teachers unions are pushing community schools as an alternative to charters.

But while the model sounds great in theory, real-life examples of high-performing community schools are few and far between. As Center for Reinventing Public Education founder Paul Hill recently pointed out, “Even if wrap-around services improve students’ school readiness, leaders will still be left to address the question of how to make the schools more effective for those students.” Instead, Hill says, the “emphasis on social and health services can lead teachers and principals to think that instructional practices and teaching conditions don’t need to change” and allow community school leaders to “avoid the hard work of managing schools, evaluating instructional staff, seeking and strategically allocating teaching talent, and looking for more effective approaches.”

Plus, community schools are expensive to operate and often require sizable upfront investments to get off the ground, which makes them a tough sell in districts whose budgets are still recovering from cuts imposed during the Great Recession.

Nevertheless, community schools are a key part of LAROS’ plan. In May, Kyle Serrette held a training for LAROS members in Baton Rouge to finalize their strategies and hone their messages, particularly on community schools.

The group also agreed to initially target “friendly” school boards before moving to places like New Orleans, where school board members would be less receptive to their message. The idea was that their effort would gain momentum across Louisiana as more and more districts adopted anti-charter resolutions and endorsed community schools. Eventually, if all went as planned, LAROS would have enough school boards behind them to push for a statewide moratorium on charters in the legislature.

In fact, it’s clear that LAROS is now in the implementation phase of that plan. Meeting minutes show that the group met with East Baton Rouge Parish administrators – including Superintendent Warren Drake – in August to pitch community schools.

Kyle Serrette also flew down from his home in Washington, DC to proselytize for community schools in meetings with school officials in St. James Parish and even State Superintendent John White.

Moreover, just a few weeks ago, The Advertiser reported that LAROS members Debbie Meaux and Karran Harper Royal, who is being paid by NEA, made a presentation on community schools to the Lafayette Parish School Board.

Of course, Meaux and Royal never mentioned to board members that they were pitching community schools as part of a secret, union-backed plot against charters.

Coming up in Part III & IV (in quicker succession, I promise): How LAROS planned to rewrite Act 91 and rollback accountability.


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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LAE says 3 dists considering comm. schools thx to #LAROS; background: pcook.me/xw2T & here pcook.me/jHrV #LaEd #edreformJason BorgstromDFER LouisianaPaul PastorekSarah Vandergriff Recent comment authors
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Jason Borgstrom

Paid for by NEA: pcook.me/3C5d twitter.com/SouthernEdFoun… #LaEd #NOLAed #edreform

DFER Louisiana

ICYMI: @petercook‘s second story examining secret groups’ work to curtail progressive #edreform: bit.ly/2h5G4cq #FridayFive


DFER Louisiana

ICYMI: @petercook‘s second story examining secret groups’ work to curtail progressive #edreform: bit.ly/2h5G4cq #FridayFive


Paul Pastorek

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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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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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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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