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Pro-Tip: Don’t Confuse Mayor With Emperor LaToya Cantrell weighs-in on OneApp while trying to take money from public schools

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UPDATE: 5/16/19A new fiscal note attached to Senate Bill 110 estimates that an increase in the City of New Orleans’ tax collection fee from 2% to 4% would cost the Orleans Parish School Board “an additional $8,600,000 beginning 2019-20 and increasing annually to $9,600,000 by 2023-24.”


On Friday, the Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s newly-established Office of Youth and Families issued a statement on OneApp, the system that families use to enroll their children in New Orleans public schools. The move was puzzling for a number of reasons.

The statement from the Mayor’s Office of Youth & Families on OneApp.

For one thing, Mayor Cantrell has no authority whatsoever over the school system, which is governed by the seven elected members of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), an independent public body separate from the City of New Orleans.

Given that fact, the Mayor’s decision to officially weigh-in on OPSB’s enrollment process could understandably be viewed as both inappropriate and unhelpful, particularly from the standpoint of OPSB. (Can you imagine how the Mayor would react if, say, the Jefferson Parish Council issued a public appraisal of the Sewerage & Water Board?) Indeed, OPSB leaders spent much of last week trying to dissuade the Mayor’s office from issuing the statement. Sources with knowledge of those discussions say that the Mayor’s team solicited feedback on various drafts of their press release, but refused requests to nix it altogether.

What did the Cantrell Administration have to say that was so profoundly important that it was necessary to press on over the objections of OPSB? Not a whole hell of a lot. The 380-word press release issued on Friday is heavy on platitudes, devoid of real substance, and dripping with condescension.

Emily Wolff speaks at the official unveiling of one of the Office of Youth & Families’ “major” initiatives: a new meditation room in City Hall (?).

Consider, for example, this quote attributed to Emily Wolff, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, which serves as the centerpiece of the statement:

“We need to double-down on working to create more high-quality seats for all of our city’s children. I urge the OPSB, policy leaders and educators to work to adapt best practices to more schools and better communicate with families about the diverse array of school choices available to them.”

Create more high-quality school options? Employ best practices? Communicate with families? My god, what revolutionary ideas!

Apparently, the Mayor and her staff believe the city’s education policymakers, school leaders, and teachers have been aimlessly scratching around in the dirt for the past fifteen years. Perhaps she hadn’t heard that the post-Katrina New Orleans school system improved faster than any other school district in the country. Maybe Mayor Cantrell also missed the release of a new study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, which found that New Orleans schools are outperforming the state on academic growth.

Graphic from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford.

In spite of this progress, she would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the local education community who doesn’t recognize that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to improving schools. In just the past few months, OPSB Supt. Henderson Lewis announced that four low-performing schools would be closing at the end of the school year. It’s hard to comprehend how the Mayor could look at that and draw the conclusion that the district is resting on its laurels.

If the Cantrell Administration is really serious about “working to ensure the system works better,” it can start by staying out of the schools district’s affairs. There are plenty of issues within the Mayor’s purview that need to be addressed, such as the recent spike in juvenile violent crime, the dearth of after-school programming for New Orleans youth, or the fact that public schools often have to close due to problems arising from the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

Tackling these challenges would be a vastly more helpful than admonishing – and by extension, insulting – the education professionals who are working to improve our city’s schools every day.

Oh, one more thing…

Do you want to know what’s even more insulting? While Mayor Cantrell is insisting the district “double-down” to expand high-quality schools, she’s surreptitiously trying to seize a bigger chunk of OPSB’s tax revenues.

Under current state law, the City of New Orleans is responsible for collecting property and sales taxes in the parish. The city then gives the Orleans Parish School Board its share of the money minus a 2% fee, which is intended to cover the costs incurred by the city to collect the taxes. However, Mayor Cantrell is aiming to increase that fee and has enlisted her dear friend, State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, to get the law changed.

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (left) shares a laugh with Mayor Cantrell (right), former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and Councilperson Helena Moreno.

Senate Bill 110, which was filed by Peterson in March and is currently awaiting a final vote in the Louisiana House, would revise the law to allow the City of New Orleans to raise its collection fee from 2% to 4%. An extra 2% might not sound like much, but consider that OPSB’s gross tax revenues in F.Y. 2018 were $169.3 million. If OPSB had been charged a 4% collection fee, $6.8 million in school funds would have been siphoned off into the city’s general fund. In fact, if S.B. 110 becomes law, it’s estimated that schools could end up losing $75 for every student they serve.

That isn’t pocket change and it’s not hard to imagine that school leaders, parents, and other community members might take issue with the fee hike. That may explain why the Cantrell Administration hasn’t exactly advertised the fact they’re gunning for a bigger slice of the tax pie. While the Mayor has been candid about the city’s need to raise revenue, and has offered several possible options toward that end, their proposal to increase the tax collection fee has been left unmentioned. Moreover, sources say that the Mayor’s office didn’t even give OPSB a courtesy heads-up about their plan to pursue a fee hike in the legislature. Instead, district officials only found out about the bill last week, after it had already cleared the Senate and was working its way through the House.


As Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry pointed out in an op-ed hilariously entitled, “Mayor Cantrell, apparently serious, boasts of her transparency,” the Mayor “gives the public information on a need-to-know basis, and generally governs as if we never do.” It seems she’s using the same approach in her dealings with the Orleans Parish School Board. Even though the Cantrell Administration insists its “committed to working with OPSB,” when the Mayor interferes in the district’s affairs and tries to seize millions in OPSB funds, it looks a lot more like she’s working against it.

Maybe it’s time for folks in the #CityOfYes to send a message to the Mayor: When it comes to our public schools, she should #JustSayNo.


Read Senate Bill 110:

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.

Politics

Schott Foundation Under Microscope In Federal Investigation of Gillum Campaign Grand jury issues subpoenas for information from Schott, Opportunity to Learn Action Fund

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Subpoenas issued by a federal grand jury in Florida suggest that the FBI has launched an investigation into the gubernatorial campaign of former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost a close election for the Sunshine State’s highest office to Republican Ron DeSantis last year.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, federal investigators are also exploring Gillum’s ties to two Massachusetts-based anti-education reform organizations – the Schott Foundation for Public Education and its affiliated 501(c)(4), the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund – and have demanded information about Schott CEO and president John H. Jackson and board member Sharon Lettman-Hicks.

Andrew Gillum, who lost a close race for governor of Florida last year, was involved with the Schott Foundation and the Opportunity to Learn Action Fund.

Tax filings show that Gillum was a member of the board of directors of the Schott Foundation as recently as June 2017. He concurrently served as president of the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund (OTLAF), which is directly controlled by Schott, although he did not earn a salary in that role.

This isn’t the first time that questions have been raised about Gillum’s conduct. In August 2015, a year into Gillum’s tenure as mayor of Tallahassee, the FBI launched an undercover corruption investigation of the city government. Although Gillum was never directly implicated, three city officials were eventually indicted on racketeering, bribery, extortion, bank fraud, and wire fraud charges.

It subsequently emerged that Gillum had accepted tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” as well as a free hotel room from an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a real estate developer during a 2016 trip to New York. In April, Gillum paid a $5000 fine to settle charges related to the Hamilton trip brought by the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Schott Foundation CEO and president John H. Jackson and board member Sharon Lettman-Hicks were also targets of the subpoenas.

A closer look at the Schott & Opportunity To Learn

The recent subpoenas mean that Gillum’s settlement with the ethics commission may not mark the end of his legal troubles. They also bring a new level of scrutiny to the inner workings of the Schott Foundation.

The Schott Foundation’s self-declared mission is “to develop and strengthen a broad-based and representative movement to achieve fully resourced, quality PreK-12 public education.” In reality, Schott works in lockstep with the national teachers unions in three key areas. First, it provides grants to anti-reform groups such as the Network for Public Education, Alliance for Quality Education, Annenberg Center for School Reform at Brown University, and UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Just a sample of the anti-education reform groups that the Schott Foundation has funded in recent years.

Furthermore, as I explained in a 2017 op-ed in The Seventy-Four, Schott organizes and underwrites trainings for its nationwide network of grantees, many of which focus on messaging and communications strategy. Finally, Schott engages in policy development and advocacy, and has published dozens of reports opposing charters, accountability, and standardized testing.


Read my piece in The 74:

Cook: Charter Activists Know How to Walk the Walk but Not How to Talk the Talk

The 74 is moderating a panel Wednesday at the 24th annual California Charter Schools Conference in Sacramento, about inaccurate narratives surrounding public charter schools and how the mainstream media covers, and occasionally distorts, the sector. (Livestream will start here at 1:45pm EST.)


But the strange thing about the Schott Foundation is that it’s not a foundation in the traditional sense of the word. Its most recent available tax filings reveal that Schott has less than $9 million in assets, and unlike other philanthropic foundations, it makes very little revenue from investments. In fact, a review of the Schott Foundation’s tax returns between 2013 and 2017 indicates that the vast majority of its revenue comes from outside contributions and grants (97% of total revenue in F.Y. 2017) and it tends to spend only as much as it takes in. All of which suggests that Schott primarily serves as a conduit for other people’s money.

The data above comes from the Schott Foundation’s IRS 990s.

Annual financial reports to the U.S. Department of Labor show that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) have given Schott and OTLAF a total of $1,330,000 since 2011, although the overwhelming majority of that money ($1,275,000) went to the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund. Moreover, tax records indicate that AFT and NEA’s contributions accounted for more than 99% of OTLAF’s revenues between 2011 and 2017.

Opportunity To Learn tax filings raise questions, shine light

A review of those same tax records raises questions about the organization’s accounting practices. For example, OTLAF’s tax returns state the organization had no revenue during the fiscal year that ended June 30th, 2012.

However, NEA’s 2012 annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that the union made two $150,000 contributions to the organization in October 2011 and March 2012.

There is a similar discrepancy for OTLAF’s 2016 tax filings, in which the organization reported only $60 in revenue.

Once again, this conflicts with AFT’s 2016 annual report to the Department of Labor, which indicates that the union gave Opportunity To Learn $75,000 in August 2015.

How the Opportunity To Learn Action Fund actually spent the funding it got from AFT and NEA also invites scrutiny. Of the nearly $1,285,000 in revenue the organization received between 2011 and 2017, OTLAF reported that it spent 52% of that money ($671,673) as “Other Expenses” on their tax returns, a category which encompasses what are more commonly known as overhead costs. This appears rather high given that the National Council for Nonprofits says that the normal range for overhead rates is 25-35%.

Between 2011 and 2017, Opportunity To Learn Action Fund spent more money on overhead than anything else.

But perhaps the most interesting revelations in Opportunity To Learn’s tax returns is who received the $535,000 in grants the organization distributed during the same period. In F.Y. 2017, OTLAF gave $45,000 to Massachusetts Jobs With Justice Action Fund and $10,000 to the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. On its tax return, OTLAF stated that these grants were made in support of Save Our Public Schools, a referendum committee that opposed Question 2, a ballot initiative that sought to lift the charter school cap in Massachusetts.

It just so happens that both Jobs With Justice and the New England Conference of the NAACP joined the Save Our Public Schools campaign, which raises the question of whether AFT and NEA used the OTLAF grants to buy the support of those organizations.1

OTLAF also made grants to organizations involved in the effort to defeat a 2016 constitutional amendment that would have created an “Opportunity School District” in Georgia with the power to takeover perennially failing public schools.

Furthermore, OTLAF gave $100,000 to underwrite the anti-reform documentary, “Backpack Full of Cash,” which was narrated by Matt Damon. The film has been heavily promoted by AFT and NEA, which makes sense, since they essentially paid for it via Opportunity to Learn.

It should be noted that the grand jury subpoenas issued to the Schott Foundation and Opportunity To Learn Action Fund do not necessarily mean that those organizations are officially the subjects of an FBI investigation. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, emerges from the grand jury probe in the coming weeks and months.


  1. UPDATE: 06/11/19 – Interestingly enough, the New England Conference of the NAACP had its tax exempt status revoked by the IRS in May 2017 for failing to file tax returns for three consecutive years.  
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Wave Of #RedForEd Candidates Crashes In The Voting Booth Very Few Teachers Running For State Office In WV, OK, KY & AZ Won On Election Night

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Update 11/15/2018: When this post was first published, it appeared that Kathy Hoffman, the Democratic candidate for Arizona’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, had been narrowly defeated by her opponent, Frank Riggs. However, mail-in ballots shifted the tally in her favor in the week following the election and she was declared the winner on Monday, November 12th.


Scores of teachers running for office in four states which were roiled by teacher walkouts earlier this spring were unable to translate the energy and enthusiasm behind those strikes into electoral victories on Tuesday night.

Over the past six months, the dominant narrative in the media has been that the teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona signaled a shift in the political landscape of these traditionally conservative, GOP-controlled states. And public education advocates, particularly the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA), promised to capitalize on public support for the #RedForEd strikes by electing a wave of educators to state office.


However, an analysis of election returns reveals the predicted wave turned out to be more of a ripple. Of the 103 teachers identified by Education Week as candidates for legislative office in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, only thirteen ended up winning their elections.

Here’s a breakdown of the results in each of the four states…

West Virginia: 7 Losses / 3 Wins

This year’s outbreak of strikes started in West Virginia back in February after the state affiliates of AFT and NEA called on teachers to walkout to demand higher pay and lower health care costs. The ensuing strike shuttered school districts across the state for nearly two weeks until West Virginia lawmakers agreed to fund a 4% across-the-board pay raise and pledged to freeze health insurance premiums.

Although the strike was widely characterized as a big victory for labor, the educators running for office in West Virginia were unable to sustain that momentum into November. Only three of the ten teacher candidates won their elections on Tuesday and one of them was an incumbent lawmaker.

Oklahoma: 60 Losses / 6 Wins

After a decade of stagnant wages and steep cuts in K-12 funding, teachers in Oklahoma brought the state’s public education system to a halt for nine days in April as they swarmed the state capitol to demand a long-overdue pay raise and increased revenue for schools. While state legislators eventually agreed to a $6000 pay boost for teachers and an additional $1250 for support staff, they refused to raise taxes for schools.

However, most of the concessions made by lawmakers were passed before the strike even began, leading some to question whether the walkout really accomplished anything. As Gregg Garn, dean of the college of education at the University of Oklahoma, told the New York Times, “In the long run, if candidates that support education get elected, that’s what will determine who won or lost.”


Unfortunately for teachers, by that measure they lost. Of the sixty-six teachers who ran for legislative office in Oklahoma, only six were elected on Tuesday night. Moreover, any hope that the teachers running for office might boost the number of Democratic seats in the legislature was dashed as four of the six educators elected are Republicans.

Kentucky: 17 Losses / 3 Wins

Although the strikes that rattled Kentucky were less widespread than those in West Virginia and Oklahoma, teachers were still able to compel the GOP-controlled legislature to not only pass a record funding increase for schools, but to override a veto of their budget plan by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.

Teachers flooded the Kentucky State Capitol to demand an increase in funding for schools.

However, as in West Virginia and Oklahoma, support for the teachers strike did not translate into votes for teachers running for state office. Only three of the twenty teacher candidates pulled off a win on Tuesday night – and two of the three were Republicans.

Arizona: 6 Losses / 1 Win

Teachers closed schools across Arizona for five days in a strike over their salaries, which were among some of the lowest in the country. Although they initially demanded a 20% raise from lawmakers, teachers eventually agreed to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s offer of a 19% pay increase spread out over three years.

Ducey easily won reelection on Tuesday with nearly 60% of vote, but it was a very different story for those teachers running for the state legislature: only one of the seven candidates managed to win.

Traditional public education advocates also suffered a loss in the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Democratic candidate Kathy Hoffman, a speech therapist from outside Phoenix who was backed by the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Federation of Teachers, was narrowly defeated by her Republican counterpart, Frank Riggs. (See the update at the top of this post)

Screenshot from the website of the Arizona Secretary of State.

The one bright spot in an otherwise dismal election night for Arizona teachers was the defeat of Proposition 305, a ballot measure that would have vastly expanded the state’s education savings account (a.k.a., voucher) program. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal by a margin of 2-to-1.

Screenshot from the website of the Arizona Secretary of State.

Other Notable Races: Colorado & California

Finally, let’s turn to some notable races in other states, beginning with Colorado, where a series of walkouts closed schools across ten districts over a two-week period, but never became as widespread as in Arizona. The disruptions eventually ended when lawmakers passed a budget that allocated an additional $225 million for the state’s pension system and $150 million for public schools.

Nevertheless, public education advocates suffered some big losses on Election Night. The two teachers running for the Colorado General Assembly both went down in defeat and Amendment 73, a ballot initiative that would have raised $1.6 billion for public schools, was rejected by voters.


Meanwhile, the race for California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, which became a proxy war between charter school supporters and the Golden State’s powerful teachers unions, appears to have tipped in favor of reformers. As of noon today, Marshall Tuck, who has the backing by pro-charter school groups, had a narrow 76,000-vote lead over Tony Thurmond, with over 97% of the ballots counted.

Pro-reform candidate Marshall Tuck (right) has a narrow lead over Tony Thurmond in the race for California State Superintendent of Instruction.

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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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