Celebrating Ten Years of Post-Katrina, New Orleans Charters– And You Are Not Invited
In modern America, when it comes to selling a product, the question of whether the product actually works as promised becomes irrelevant. The narrow concern for the profit-driven ends with effectively marketing the product.
Sales result from effective marketing– not the least of which is repeatedly telling the consumer that the product works.
Tell consumers that the product works. Tell them repeatedly.
They then mistake repetition for truth, and voila! the product moves off of the retailer’s shelf.
This is the story of the now-all-charter Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans: It is an inferior product that continues to be pushed as a nationwide model of charter school success, yet it is a failure. A flop. Nothing more than marketing hype.
And certainly no miracle.
In June 2015, a questionably-funded group will be hosting a ten-year celebration of all-charter RSD. The event– focused on school “choice”– will be closed to the public.
Makes one wonder what story will be told at this exclusive conference in order to package and nationally promote the RSD product .
You won’t get to hear it firsthand.
You are not invited.
Fortunately, I have a story for you here, a documented story, and it is available to any who would read it. No RSVP required, even. I must note, though, it is a long story– more like a book chapter than a blog post–and it ends with a challenge for our 2015 invitation-only conference host– so make yourself comfortable.
Contrary to what many believe, RSD did not originate following the August 2005 devastation of New Orleans via Hurricane Katrina. RSD was formed pre-Katrina, in 2003 via Act 9, and it was a statewide district. Former Governor Kathleen Blanco supported Act 9. Based upon the legislated criteria set to determine a 2003 “failing” school as any that had a school performance score below 60, RSD only garnered five former Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) schools pre-Katrina. At the time that the hurricane hit, OPSB still operated 117 schools.
OPSB’s retaining so many schools was not supposed to happen.
The hidden agenda behind formation of RSD was for the state to assume control over all OPSB schools and convert OPSB into an all-charter district. To this end, Act 9 in 2003 was not enough.
The powers that be who wanted to “solve” the OPSB “problem” with under-regulated market forces would find their moment to strike within two years.
When Katrina destroyed New Orleans in August 2005, those eyeballing the New Orleans schools for complete charter conversion–not the least of whom was the late State Superintendent Cecil Picard– urged former Governor Kathleen Blanco to push the Louisiana legislature for Act 35. Former BESE member Leslie Jacobs is considered the “mother” of Act 35, which the Louisiana legislature passed in November 2005. Via Act 35, the number of OPSB schools defined as “failing” now included approximately 100 more due to a redefining of “failing” as any school with a school performance score below the 2004 state average of 87.4.
As proponents of this all-charter conversion readily note, it is true that pre-Katrina OPSB was involved in corruption. However, the clean-up, including federal grand jury indictments, had also begun pre-Katrina. Indeed, OPSB corruption cleanup served as a front to convert OPSB into an all-charter experiment. As former Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Louella Givens, Research on Reforms founder Barbara Ferguson, and others note, the takeover of New Orleans schools post-Katrina was nothing less than a scheme to hand OPSB schools over to out-of-state charter operators with no thought to the outcomes such would have for the New Orleans community or its children. This six-minute video by New Orleans native and filmmaker Phoebe Ferguson briefly details the scheme:
There is more to the story, as former New Orleans school principal, Research on Reforms contributor, and local radio host Raynard Sanders explained to me in 2013 based upon depositions related to OPSB wrongful termination lawsuit: Picard wanted New Orleans schools to become one complete charter district; however, he could not dissolve OPSB without altering the Louisiana Constitution. So, OPSB remained with only approximately 17 schools. However, Louisiana law allowed OPSB magnet schools to become “selective admission” charter schools.
Those OPSB selective admission charters are useful when one wants to discuss “New Orleans charter success,” for they provide a necessary concealer for the majority of charters in New Orleans, those taken over by the state, to appear successful by proxy.
There are also other means for charters to shape a desired student body, including steering students away, counseling out, and employing strict discipline practices.
Where Are the RSD “A” Schools?
Student demographic strategies aside, the charter experiment in New Orleans has failed. If it had succeeded, then by now– almost ten years later– most RSD charters surely should be receiving A’s and B’s based on the state’s own letter grade system.
Not so. In 2011-12, New Orleans RSD was given a D. In 2012-13, the state inflated its grading but also included the 2011-12 means of calculating the grade. Based upon the 2011-12 formula, RSD-NO would have remained a D district in 2012-13. However, based upon the “new” 2012-13 calculation, RSD-NO “improved” to being a C district. In 2013-14, RSD-NO retained its “improved” C district grade. (For several years’ worth of spreadsheets of Louisiana school performance scores and letter grades, click here.)
Not one RSD-NO school has an A yet.
There’s always next decade.
Indeed, it seems that the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) cannot figure out how to “make” now-all-charter RSD into even a B district.
That doesn’t mean LDOE isn’t trying.
Of Unicorns and Untainted, Readily-available RSD Data
Tracking RSD charter progress across the decade is a sleight-of-score unequaled by any David Copperfield illusion. Dr. Barbara Ferguson of Research on Reforms has taken upon herself the daunting task of trying to keep track of the “disruptive innovation” occurring with New Orleans charter churn. She offers some eye-opening information for those who naively believe the closing of a community school results in the opening of a stable charter school in its place:
During its first few years, the Recovery School District (RSD) simply opened schools in New Orleans, without closing any and without changing any school codes. But, five years ago (2010) the RSD began to close schools and change school codes as frequently as it opened schools. These actions compromise the RSD District Performance Score because test scores from students in closed schools are omitted. Also, when the RSD changes a school code, the old code and the test scores listed under that code are often eliminated.
In addition, when schools are newly opened, many wait years to receive a School Performance Score, meaning that those students’ test scores are not calculated into the RSD District Performance Score. During the last five years, 2010 through 2014, the RSD closed 25 schools, opened 23 new schools, and changed the codes of 21 schools in New Orleans. The question is whether these actions represent the challenges of the newly created Recovery School District, or if they are a deliberate attempt to thwart research on its progress. …
When the Recovery School District in New Orleans closes 25 schools in five years, then test scores from students in those closed schools are not included in the calculation of the RSD District Performance Score. … Even if the students from the closed school enrolled in a different school the following year, their scores would still be discarded because their new school’s performance score would have already been calculated using the test scores of the students from the prior year. Eliminating the scores of so many students by closing schools makes it difficult to determine whether the RSD has improved or not improved.
In addition to closing schools during the last five years, the RSD opened 23 new schools and assigned each a new school code. Many of these schools did not receive a performance score for their first few years because scores are calculated based on growth from the previous years. Thus, the test scores of students in many of the newly opened schools are not included in the RSD District Performance Score. [Emphasis added.]
There are surely a lot of numbers for LDOE to play with, lots of potential for ghosting out students and schools from the “rising” RSD-NO school performance scores. (No one knows, what exactly goes on with LDOE since it produced no evidence that it audited any of its $5 billion dollars’ worth of programs in FY2014.)
An interesting issue with Ferguson and Research on Reforms is that her organization was initially denied access to RSD-NO school data by court order in January 2014. That’s right: The lower court declared that LDOE can give its data on publicly-funded schools to whomever it chooses– and LDOE chose the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO)– whose founding director, Margaret Raymond, recently stated that she concludes that market-driven reform cannot work in education in this surprising December 12, 2014, Washington Post account. Meanwhile, in September 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision, declaring that LDOE cannot make de-identified student data selectively available to researchers. In his judgment on appeal, the judge stated that LDOE “cannot inquire as to the purpose of the released document.” In other words, LDOE cannot hand over its data only to agencies that it approves of.
As of December 26, 2014, LDOE has refused to comply with the September 2014 judgment that it non-selectively surrender de-identified New Orleans student data to all interested research agencies.
One month following the above judgment of appeal, in October 2014, charter-friendly Cowen Institute in New Orleans tried to sell charters via a “study” in which it used value-added modeling (VAM) to demonstrate charter school test score gains– except that the Cowen study did not utilize VAM at all. Completely wrong analysis. The situation became an incredible embarrassment for Cowen Institute– so much so that Cowen Institute Director John Ayers abruptly resigned one month following the botched VAM study fiasco.
Aside from issues of not “making the grade” by the state’s own criteria, the RSD miracle facade is also peeling at the edges from its own lack of regulation.
In their haste to get what they wanted, those who schemed to convert New Orleans to an out-of-state-run, market-driven, under-regulated, all-charter district actually performed a corruption scenario substitution. Though LDOE, BESE, and other “choice” promoters might try to hide it, there are many red flags, and they are indeed waving wildly.
In May 2013, I wrote about the Louisiana legislative auditor’s finding of a lack of oversight for Louisiana charters. Due to a continued lack of sufficient state regulation, the potential for charter fraud is alive and well in New Orleans in 2014, including this operator’s forging records and not paying into pension plans. Without sufficient state oversight, an employee at one charter school could even be arrested for sexual misconduct, and due to no uniformity regarding background checks across all charter schools, be hired at another charter years later, and again face sexual misconduct charges.
What also should be further– and openly– investigated is the profit potential in constantly “turning over” schools. If charter operators receive under-regulated start-up monies to become the “next” saviors of failing schools, then why would these operators actually want to succeed? Just spend the few years of money to start a school, then hand it over to another operator to have its under-regulated moment in the charter-funded sun.
Well, now. None of these under-regulated realities and unanswered points of “accountability” bode well for marketing RSD as a national model for all-charter-district success.
What the New Orleans, pro-charter set needs is for someone to tell the nation that Charters Are Working in New Orleans. Just tell them, and they will buy in. Truth has nothing to do with it.
Marketing RSD “Success”
In securing that desired RSD success promo, it would help if that someone could promote the image of RSD as being legitimately researched. Sure, there is the Tulane-associated Cowen Institute; however, they couldn’t even get their “research” together well enough to properly execute VAM without an embarrassment culminating in the director’s resignation.
Enter Doug Harris, Tulane professor of economics, who is also an “Endowed Chair in Public Education” (which means some donor is footing the bill for Harris’ position). Harris founded a group called the Education Research Alliance (ERA), purportedly to study New Orleans’ school reform. One supporter of Harris’ ERA is heavily-invested New Orleans charter promoter, the Arnold Foundation, which donated $3 million to ERA in October 2014. Harris notes that New Orleans educational reform “is already being assumed a success.” Nevertheless, he is here to collect data on the issue.
Interesting that Harris has gained clearance from LDOE to collect data on charters, enough to “build a comprehensive data warehouse.” Harris’ ERA is also supposed to conduct “a comprehensive survey of parents, students, and educators in order to understand what is happening within schools.”
Sounds like Harris has clearance to “audit” New Orleans charters more than anyone ever has.
Don’t expect much.
Tulane is also home to the most Teach for America (TFA) recruits in the state (2013 stat), and the very pro-charter, very pro-TFA Walton Foundation donated $3 million to TFA in 2013 specifically for TFAers to staff those remarkable New Orleans charter schools. Moreover, Louisiana State Superintendent John White– the one who manipulates and selectively withholds RSD data and who refuses to audit LDOE (charters included)– he is not only a former TFA temp teacher but also a former TFA executive director in Chicago who actively funnels Louisiana money to TFA. The TFA- and charter-friendly Walton Foundation also funds the New Orleans OneApp open enrollment for “choice” to attend those mostly-lower-end, letter-graded charters. There are too many TFA-related, charter-friendly millions flowing into Tulane for all-charter RSD to be anything other than nationally marketable.
Still, Harris wants the public to believe his research outcomes are somehow untouched by the biased millions swirling around his “mystery-endowed” head.
Yep. Harris’ ERA maintains that it is concerned with the “facts.” It does not explain how its funding– including its secret “endowed” funder(s)– might shape the “facts” it presents.
Surely disclosing the wealthy individuals who are supporting an economics professor as the “chair” of “public education” is a “fact” that colors the outcomes of ERA charter research, no?
Yet Harris and his ERA are set to “present research on New Orleans education reforms” in a tenth-anniversary-of-Katrina event scheduled for June 18-20, 2015.
1555 Poydras Street, Suite 7**
The June 2015 RSD glorification event includes Tulane’s Cowen Institute, a “fact” which holds a hint of irony since Cowen botched that October 2014, charter-school-measuring VAM effort and “Endowed Chair in Public Education” Harris wrote a book on VAM in 2011.
Charter-promoting New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) is also housed at 1555 Poydras Street, Suite 700 according to the NSNO legal page– or down the hall at suite 781 according to other contact information.
Another tidbit about NSNO: The same Arnold Foundation that is funding ERA for $3 million also donated $25 million in November 2012 for New Orleans charter creation and expansion over five years. NSNO is one of the two groups managing the $25 million. (The other group is Charter School Growth Fund.)
Yet another NSNO entanglement, this one with TFA: NSNO founder Sarah Usdin is a former TFAer and former TFA executive director for Louisiana. In November 2012, she was elected to the Orleans Parish School Board. Usdin then “partnered” with former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s The New Teacher Project (TNTP).
Guess where TNTP has its New Orleans office?
TNTP, 1555 Poydras Street, Suite 748.
Did I mention that Harris states that he is going to offer RSD charter research based on “the facts”?
For $4000, one can complete TNTP coursework in one year, pass the certification tests, and become a certified, Level 1 teacher. It’s better than TFA’s five weeks of training, but it still requires only half of the time as a typical associates degree. In fact, LDOE includes additional, TNTP training in its TFA contracts. Pay TFA; pay TNTP. Supply charters with a steady supply of temp staffers.
Hanging the Harris hat at 1555-Poydras presents a cozy, pro-charter arrangement for “just the facts” ERA, an organization that was suspiciously the last to arrive on this pro-charter block– but in plenty of time to lend a “real” researcher name to any effort to celebrate ten years of RSD-birthed charter glory.
Celebrating RSD– By Invitation Only
ERA advertises its tenth-anniversary charter-sell gala in the following save-the-date, which is invitation only:
Invitation: New Orleans 10 Years Later
** Save the Date: June 18-20, 2015 **
The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Era-New Orleans) at Tulane University is pleased to invite you to attend
The Urban Education Future? Lessons from New Orleans 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina
June 18-20, 2015
This conference will provide the first balanced and comprehensive look at the New Orleans education experience and its effects. Local participants will include architects of the reforms, educators, administrators and non-profit leaders involved in the city’s schools. National participants will include representatives of major interest and advocacy groups, philanthropists, scholars, commentators, journalists, and leaders in cities pursuing similar reform models. Most importantly, the invitation and speakers list includes a mix of both supporters and opponents of the reforms.
Confirmed national speakers include (alphabetically):
Michael Casserly, Council of Great City Schools
Rick Hess, American Enterprise Institute
Paul Hill, Center for Reinventing Public Education
Pedro Noguera, New York University
Charles Payne, University of Chicago
The event will cover a wide range of topics, including: teachers and instructional quality, charter schools and CMOs, school choice, charter authorization and closure, finances, and test-based accountability. All of these topics will be discussed with a focus on equity and student outcomes.
Please join Era-New Orleans, The Cowen Institute, and more than a dozen local partners to consider the lessons learned from New Orleans and the future of urban education. This event is invitation-only and space will be limited, so we will be sending an RSVP form shortly. We hope to see you here in June. [Emphasis added.]
This event is “by invitation only.” Louisiana’s so-called “school choice” is supposedly about “empowering parents,” yet the public is purposely excluded.
A $3 million grant from the Arnold Foundation, and “space is limited.”
The public is purposely excluded.
This “invitation only” is even worse than opening the event to the public and charging admission. I don’t care who Harris invites for his “balanced and comprehensive look”– he is intentionally excluding most stakeholders from even “looking.”
I should add that this invitation was not sent to me.
I wonder what local “opponents of the reforms” will be invited to speak– if any.
It is one thing to invite an opponent who lives elsewhere and whose words might be excused with, “Well, this person isn’t from here.” Such speakers might present a powerful criticism easily excused by locals, and given the controlled, closed nature of the event, broadcasting of any negative message could well be suppressed.
The closed nature of this event makes it easily shaped as “evidence” of unbiased discussion on New Orleans charters– “evidence” with a message that can be managed– a veneer of critical thought that provides a credible shell to whatever “research based” thumbs-up Harris’ ERA shellacs for opaque, tepid RSD “results.”
Local researchers should be on ERA’s gala announcement, prominently displayed. The organization Research on Reforms should be not only invited, but invited to speak.
So should Kristen Buras.
New Orleans native and Georgia State University professor Kristen Buras has been actively studying post-Katrina education reforms since 2005. She travels to New Orleans several times each year to conduct research, which includes meeting with community members, community organizations, and collecting documents. In September 2014, Buras published a book entitled, Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance.
Buras did receive an invitation from ERA– to sit in the audience and witness its pasted-together “balanced and comprehensive look” at a topic that she has been actively researching for a decade.
If Harris wanted in-depth research on RSD, he could have invited Buras as a featured speaker.
I’m thinking his 1555 Poydras Street address precludes such an invitation.
Buras is familiar with Harris and ERA, having attended ERA “stakeholder” events with local activist Karran Harper Royal, whom Harris included in an October 2014 debate. Buras offered this perspective to me via email:
Karran Harper Royal and I attended one of ERA’s so-called brown bags early on. Even though ERA claims to be community-oriented, they are not. The brown bag was held in the middle of a weekday and it cost $5 dollars to park at the Tulane medical school building, where ERA shares space….
…The room was full of young, white 20-somethings, all involved in advancing market reforms as entrepreneurs and policy advocates for one of the above organizations (the ones with the 1555 Poydras Street addresses). Most interesting, Harris, ERA’s head, could barely get a word in edgewise. Leslie Jacobs–former member of OPSB and BESE as well as a force behind Louisiana’s school accountability program, the constitutional amendment and law that created the state-run Recovery School District, and current advocate of charter school expansion– spoke the entire time. There was no community input.
Harris needs to host discussions conducted in a venue to which the public actually has access– and the opportunity to respond.
And he needs to feature local researchers who are not influenced by the preferences of funders.
Surely Buras qualifies as an expert on the subject of RSD, and surely, she is excluded from speaking at Harris’ invitation-only June 2015 RSD event.
But Harris did invite as a speaker American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Rick Hess, who in 2012 interviewed then-new State Superintendent John White as White bragged on the transformation that McDonogh High School would undergo at the out-of-state hands of Steve Barr.
The school sat for two years, and then Barr bailed on the project. I wrote about the situation in this October 2014 post. Not only did Barr bail; school laptops still containing student information were sold off as surplus.
I wonder if Hess will reflect on the layers of mismanagement and under-accountability present in the non-local, non-community-invested-Barr-bailing, irresponsible-selling-off-of-student-data, charter turnover situation.
Hess has funders of his own to consider. In August 2014, AEI accepted over one million dollars from the Gates Foundation for, among other issues, “supporting… impactful convenings” in K12 education.
I would add that I will wait to hear what Hess has to say, but I am not invited.
One individual on the list of the five confirmed national speakers is New York University professor Pedro Noguera, whose September 24, 2014, article in The Nation strongly confronts the charter accountability dodge-and-weave of a lack of available data on charters, referring to them as “more black boxes than transparent laboratories for innovation.” Noguera also broaches the topics of charter selective student admission and retention and high teacher attrition rates.
In February 2012, Noguera resigned from his 2008-governor-appointed position on the State University of New York (SUNY) board of trustees, one of two charter approval boards in New York State. As reported in the Wall Street Journal:
New York University professor Pedro Noguera, who held a powerful position on the 17-member board that approves charter schools, said Wednesday he believed the schools had evolved beyond their original mission: offering an alternative to failing public schools in impoverished neighborhoods.
Instead, he said, many have become unnecessary rivals to established suburban and improving urban schools. …
“It’s not clear to me what’s the larger strategy here, other than the political one,” he said. “What I see happening is a deliberate attempt to create competition between public and charter schools, but it’s an uneven playing field.”
I hope Noguera does his homework on RSD specifics prior to his June 2015 Louisiana appearance, particularly related to the data shaping designed to create an RSD charter success facade. And I hope he confronts Harris on how, exactly, his New Orleans charter research is supposed to be objective when it is heavily padded in funding reeking of a pro-charter agenda and packaged in LDOE data-release selectivity.
Another critical voice on so-called school reform is University of Chicago professor Charles Payne, who published a book in April 2008, entitled, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Noguera describes Payne’s book as follows: “A brilliant, thoughtful, and provocative analysis. Charles Payne shows why almost thirty years of school reform has brought so little change to urban public schools. Rooted in the reality of the Chicago Public Schools, Payne’s book contains lessons that are relevant to schools everywhere.”
So, it seems that Payne, too, will foster some critical discussion related to supposed RSD “success.”
Maybe Payne will ask Harris why an event discussing “school choice lessons” is being conducted in Mount Olympus fashion, closed to the very public whose lives it directly impacts.
As for Paul Hill: On his Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) research page, Hill states, “Charter schools offer the potential to create high-performing public schools in districts typically plagued by poor student outcomes.” Though he purports to offer “credible research” on charters, including RSD, he is funded by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Arnold Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, among others, and he is affiliated with NSNO. So, let’s just say that researcher objectivity is suspect.
Finally, there is Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS). It seems that CGCS’ major push is the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which it features as a CGCS research project and for which CGCS has accepted $8.2 million from the Gates Foundation from 2010 to 2013 to implement CCSS in urban school settings. New Orleans charters like CCSS, some enough to sue to keep it in Louisiana. Pro-CCSS plaintiffs have retained the firm Barrasso Usdin Kupperman Freeman & Sarver LLC in New Orleans. The “Usdin” in the firm is NSNO founder and OPSP member Sarah Usdin’s brother-in-law. Another entanglement.
What Casserly will say in regards to charter schools is unclear. Perhaps he will just cheer for CCSS.
Exiting This Lengthy Post
RSD is a product being sold to districts nationwide. From a controlled distance, it can be shaped as a success. Nevertheless, what seems to be its strongest selling point is its novelty: “Look, New Orleans has a state-run district that has been converted to all charters.” The data on this novelty has been selectively available to those most likely to fashion from it positive outcomes. However, the most glaring contradiction of even a distant miracle is the failure of any RSD schools to be graded as “A” schools even a decade following Katrina. This defies suitable explanation, as does the gaping holes in regulation of a charter system that appears to benefit operators looking for fresh money for endlessly “turning over” schools.
The next best sell is substitute celebration of “improvement.” But even that is weak. Charters were supposed to show up traditional public schools. And they haven’t.
So, now we have Harris and his ERA purporting to offer “the first balanced and comprehensive look at the New Orleans education experience and its effects” by invitation only. Harris even notes that ERA will present RSD research– and he is leaving the public out of that firsthand announcement. This exclusivity makes it appear that Harris and ERA are purposely hiding from any unpleasant confrontation that a dissatisfied RSD-utilizing public might present, unpleasantness that might ruffle pro-charter funders and hamper the RSD national-model sale more than any poised, out-of-state opposition could.
But there is still time for Harris to prove me wrong.
I challenge Harris to alter his event– to rescind his “invitation only” RSD party status and instead invite the public to hear featured local researchers and participate in a comment session. The national speakers should take a back seat to local researchers such as Kristen Buras and Barbara Ferguson.
Yes, allowing the public a voice at this event might get messy. The disenfranchised tend not to provide clean, marketable sound bytes.
But it is empowering, and it would edge closer to “balanced and comprehensive.”
Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistleblower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education