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Down-and-out In Dixie Reformers Need To Rally Behind Mississippi Charter Schools

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When teachers unions attacked charter schools in Washington State by filing lawsuits challenging their constitutionality, reformers from across the nation rushed to their defense. A media campaign was launched with the hashtag #SaveWACharterSchools. Op-eds were written. Amicus briefs were filed. Rallies were organized. Pro-charter forces raised such a fuss that the fight in Washington State grabbed national headlines. Eventually, thanks to their combined efforts, charter supporters won the day.

Reform organizations rallied to defend charter schools in Washington State

Meanwhile, a thousand miles away in the heart of the American South, Mississippi charter schools are engaged in a legal battle – nearly identical to the one in Washington State – which if lost, could cut off their funding and shutter them entirely. The big difference is that the effort to save Mississippi’s charters has gotten far less attention and support from the education reform community.

A huge need in the Magnolia State

It’s hard to understand why reformers rallied to protect charters in Washington State, while the plight of those in the Magnolia State have been largely ignored. Arguably, there is a far greater need for high-quality charter options in Mississippi, where over 30% of children live in poverty.

 
As might be expected, educational attainment in Mississippi lags far behind the national average. The state has nearly as many high school dropouts as it does college graduates. For African-Americans, the statistics are particularly disturbing. In 2015, only 14% of black fourth-graders and 8% of black eighth graders were proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That same year, ACT results showed that only 3% of Mississippi’s black high school seniors earned a college-ready score on all four tested subjects (English, math, reading, and science).

Mississippi has nearly as high school dropouts as it does college graduates.

Although high quality, open enrollment public schools could help close the gap for many of these students, they are few and far between. The school system in Jackson, where the state’s handful of charters are located, received an “F” rating this past year and State Superintendent Carey Wright has warned that the district is in danger of takeover. In short, charter schools could have a huge impact in Mississippi, putting some of our nation’s highest-need children on a dramatically better life trajectory, but that will only be possible if they survive the current legal battle.

Charter opponents well-organized and well-funded

Thankfully, groups like the Mississippi Charter Schools Association and Mississippi Justice Institute have jumped into the fray to defend charter schools. In October, these organizations, along with a group of current charter school parents, won the right to intervene in the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, charter supporters are facing off against well-organized and well-heeled opponents. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Mississippi’s charter school law, certainly has the resources to wage a prolonged legal battle. The organization reported net assets of more than $315 million in 2015.

Moreover, it seems charter opponents are preparing to wage their fight outside the courtroom as well. Last month, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced it was giving $1 million over the next three years to Parents for Public Schools Jackson, an advocacy group in the state capital that opposes charter schools.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for April 4th and the judge should issue a ruling shortly thereafter. Still, observers expect that the case will ultimately be decided by the Mississippi Supreme Court and both sides are preparing themselves for a long legal battle. With that in mind, it’s crucial that education reform supporters lend their voices (and their resources) in the upcoming weeks and months to support Mississippi’s charter schools and ensure that families in the Magnolia State have the high-quality educational options that they’ve long been denied.


Read more about this story:

Mississippi Learning? | PE + CO

We have an old saying down here in Louisiana: Thank God for Mississippi. It’s a cynical expression alluding to the fact that no matter how poorly Louisiana fares in national rankings of social and economic health, things for our neighbors in the Magnolia State are almost inevitably worse.

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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Keith CourvilleSarah VandergriffPeter C. CookKenneth CampbellCharles Barone Recent comment authors
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Keith Courville

Agreed Eric. People constantly underestimate unions. We need to build better relationships with each other for the benefit of students.

Sarah Vandergriff

Totally agree… just wanted to make sure people know that some help is there! It’s just not widely advertised 😉

Sarah Vandergriff

Just an FYI: charter attys across the country have been helping out on this case… and there’s a big difference between the level of support and PR at the district court level where judges can be very particular and finicky vs a final ruling by the highest court on the holiday weekend before schools were to open that Mon… so the resources were then used to force the Wash legislature to do something bc if not none of the schools would have opened. Miss definitely needs attn but you also have to keep in mind it’s at the beginning of a very long legal road and at least the schools are open in the meantime 😉

Peter C. Cook

Totally agree Sarah Vandergriff – I know there has been assistance behind the scenes. I’d just like to see more attention and outward messages of support for Mississippi charters from across the country. I think it matters – what happens to charters in one state eventually impacts everyone.

Kenneth Campbell

There’s actually a very easy answer to this. Mississippi is a poor state without a lot of philanthropy and the national education reform funders are not interested in Mississippi or Alabama. When we did work there to get charter laws passed, it was BAEO and the National Alliance scrapping together funding…Walton gave some early, but then developed their geographic priorities. The ed reform community basically goes where the folks with $ tell them to go or entice them to go.

Charles Barone

Not all red states. But several southern red states including Mississippi.

Peter C. Cook

Thank god for DFER Louisiana, eh? 😉

Charles Barone

Right-leaning ed reformers let red states off the hook when it comes to charters.

Erika Graham Sanzi

Be like Eric.

Peter C. Cook

Eric Lerum This is why I like Eric – he’s smart. 🙂

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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