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Mercedes Schneider



Mercedes Schneider is an English teacher at Slidell High School in St. Tammany Parish on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In recent years, she has emerged as a prolific and vitriolic anti-education reform blogger. Her favorite targets for abuse are the Recovery School District and Common Core. As a result, Mercedes has become a favorite of Diane Ravitch, who often brings attention to Mercedes’ work on her blog.

Click on the link below to read a post I wrote in response to one of Mercedes’ pieces in Huffington Post on Louisiana’s School Performance Scores that was riddled with errors.

Deconstructing Mercedes

The one thing that is clear to anyone who’s attempted to read Mercedes Schneider’s blog is that she’s angry: angry at John Merrow, angry about Common Core, angry about evolution, and angry at Teach For America, along with a whole host of other things. However, she reserves her greatest fury for t…

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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School Choice For Me, But Not For Thee BESE Candidate Bashes NOLA Schools, But Illegally Sends Her Child To One



To hear Ashonta Wyatt tell it, New Orleans public schools are nothing short of a disaster.

“This ship is crashing, it’s sinking,” Wyatt said in a recent interview with the New Orleans Tribune. “And if we don’t do anything about it, our children are the ones who will be paying the price for greed, for corruption, for malfeasance, for privatization.”

Wyatt is one of two candidates trying to unseat Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) District 2 member Kira Orange Jones in next month’s elections. While Jones is seeking another term on BESE to build upon the progress schools have made over the past 15 years, Wyatt is running on a platform that can most charitably be described as retrograde, in the sense that it would take our district back to its dysfunctional pre-Katrina days.

Ashonta Wyatt and Kira Orange Jones.

If elected, Wyatt has promised to repeal Act 91, the law which reunified the city’s public schools last year (never mind that only the legislature – not BESE – can rescind the law), restore the power of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), and turn the city’s charters back into traditional public schools. She also wants to replace State Superintendent John White, the longest-serving state superintendent in the country, whom she nonetheless considers “unqualified.”

Wyatt insists that such drastic (or, more accurately, disastrous) moves are necessary because the education system in our city is so terrible. She dismisses research that has shown that the reforms we’ve undertaken in New Orleans have raised student performance, insinuating that the data has been manipulated by education officials. She asserts that the people who work hard everyday running the city’s schools are simply trying to “benefit their businesses” and has said, “our children are just collateral damage in this business that is charter reform.”

Ashonta Wyatt with Tia Mills, the president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, who has endorsed her along with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and United Teachers of New Orleans.

Not surprisingly, Wyatt’s platform and portrayal of New Orleans public schools are music to the teachers unions’ ears. In recent weeks, the Louisiana Association of Educators, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and United Teachers of New Orleans have all endorsed her. The unions’ proxy organizations have followed suit as well. Step Up Louisiana, a local activist group launched by the Center for Popular Democracy – whose previous efforts to sabotage charter schools in Louisiana were exposed by this blog, as well as the New Orleans Advocate – threw its support behind Wyatt earlier this month. Wyatt has also allied herself with the so-called Erase The Board coalition, a group that wants to get rid of the city’s charters and uses social media to make ugly, slanderous attacks on Kira Orange Jones, OPSB officials, school leaders, and anyone else who happens to disagree with them.

In one particularly vicious attack on Facebook, Erase The Board mocked OPSB Superintendent Henderson Lewis for wearing a shirt commemorating his late father, who was a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans.

Given Wyatt’s distain for our city’s education system – a system in which, to borrow her words, students become “collateral damage”  – you may be surprised to learn that she sends her own child to a New Orleans public school even though she lives in Jefferson Parish, a fact that was revealed by Kira Orange Jones during a BESE candidate forum at Audubon Charter School last week.

“Again, you are choosing to send your child to a New Orleans school, which takes a seat from a New Orleans child,” Jones told Wyatt during the candidate forum. “If you don’t want to send your child to a New Orleans school where you don’t like the testing, or you don’t like the board, or you don’t like the way schools are moving here, then send your child to a school in Harvey, legally.”

Sources confirm Wyatt sends her child to Alice Harte Elementary, a high-performing, open-enrollment K-8 charter school in Algiers operated by the InspireNOLA network, which is one of the most sought-after school options in the city. As is the case elsewhere, students enrolling in New Orleans public schools (with the exception of BESE-authorized “Type 2” charters like the New Orleans Military And Maritime Academy) must be a resident of Orleans Parish. However, as Wyatt stated in her public comments at an Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) meeting in February 2019, she in fact lives in Harvey. As a result, her child should be enrolled in the Jefferson Parish Schools system.

Moreover, Wyatt previously indicated that she lived in Harvey (at the same address she shared at the OPSB meeting in February) in a 2015 state filing for a non-profit organization she started, which suggests that Wyatt’s deception has been going on for years.

On the one hand, one might have sympathy for Wyatt, or even forgive this transgression, since she’s a parent who is simply trying to provide her child with the best education that she can. But that’s hard to square with the fact that Wyatt decries our charter-based model as “privatization” and is running for BESE on a platform that would take away good schools like Harte from families who actually live in this city. Regardless of whether Wyatt’s actions are criminal, it’s hard to view them as anything other than hypocritical.

When citizens in BESE District 2 head to the polls on October 12th, they will have a choice between a candidate who wants to strengthen and build upon what our school system has accomplished over the past decade, or candidates who seek to drag our schools backward. Let’s hope they choose the former rather than the latter.

Those of us who support the city’s reforms can help ensure that happens by showing up on Election Day.

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



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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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana
Unapologetic Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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