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Bumps and bruises for education in New Orleans

Two headlines coming out of New Orleans should disturb that city’s education guardians.

The first headline, “Flagrant special ed violations, cover-up alleged at New Orleans charter Lagniappe,” involves a charter school that will be closing because evidence of cheating and fraud have surfaced.

The second headline, “Orleans Parish School Board member Ira Thomas charged in bribery scheme,” is yet another installment in the long and tiring history of pay-to-play governance in the Big Easy.

Both stories will try the patience of a weary city whose population has been through gross collective trauma in the last decade. A significant contributor to that pain has been a system of schools that often seems like no system at all.

In the case of Lagniappe, the charter school, the resolution seems hopeful.

Almost two years ago leaders in that school were trumpeting academic success so great it would lift them from grade F to a grade A school.

A recent report reveals a different story.

It suggests the school asked for an especially large number of special education accommodations for standardized testing of students, lied about providing services for special education students, and attempted to discard unwanted students through administrative fiat. The charges read like a greatest hits of all the usual criticisms lobbed at charter schools.

In this case the claims appear to be true and allowing a school like that to persists is just bad business.

While many districts nationally watch the New Orleans’ “experiment” with radical school change,  many NOLA parents are still skeptical and often frustrated. When there are problems like Lagniappe education leaders must be straight up. They must be decisive, transparent, and reparative.

That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.

It will.

School closings dog education leaders. Handle it wrong and parents will circle the building in anger, hot about the decision to close their school. Then the professional activists who make a living and a name exploiting every opportunity to sock it to the RSD will make it to the scene faster than Spiderman. Their weathered tactic is to leave no parent anger behind. Use it all for theater and politics.

Still, adults in the room have to put on their big people pants and do the damn thing.

It is always hard to close a school no matter how many facts support the decision. Students are displaced and parents are upset, but do you leave open a harmful school out of fear and political efficiency, or do you close it to protect kids and preserve the integrity of the school system?

I choose the latter.

While I think the RSD can improve in numerous ways, lets applaud them in this case for being one governing body over New Orleans public schools that won’t tolerate the shortchanging of kids.

As for local control

I wish the same could be said for the Orleans Parish School Board. I see the legal woes of their board member, Ira Thomas, very differently.

Talking to people in New Orleans they are rightfully tired of the question school reformers love to ask: “are the schools better than they were before Katrina.

It’s been 10 years and folks are sick of the comparison between then and now because it feels like a trick to keep attention on how bad and corrupt things were before Katrina, and how awesome they are supposed to be now that legions of valiant migrants have arrived to save the people from themselves.

The world has changed so much that the question seems moot. Some for the change has been an improvement, some of it has not.

My heart is with the champions of public schools run by New Orleanians. Schools should be local, personal, and accountable. I believe the city of New Orleans can – and must – produce its own educational leaders.

Which is why it feels like a supreme betrayal when members of New Orleans’ democratically elected school board fail to model what great self-governance might look like.

The OPSB’s tagline boasts “our job is building the future.” That can’t be true so long as they keep jogging in the spoiled canals of the past. Why would a sitting school board member be accused of taking petty bribes in amounts so pitiful if it weren’t simply business as usual?

If this were a first offense for the board we could check it and move on. But this isn’t an outlying hiccup. A few years ago Ellenese Brooks-Simms, another OPSB president, was convicted of fraud in a case that yielded kickbacks for her and a $900,000 contract for a business associate.

Don’t even talk about the board’s seemingly incurable infighting and politicization of nearly every issue that is a paralyzing, dispiriting embarrassment.

If they want to be a proof point of how a renewed New Orleans could operate schools with hometown leadership, having elected officials continue the historic pattern of corruption and squabbling isn’t a workable strategy.

A better future is possible

When thinking of the future of public education in New Orleans oversight is king. That oversight should – in every way possible – prevent situations like Lagniappe from happening, and be consistent in dropping the hammer on other schools when they’re that dirty.

Critics of school reform say the RSD is making an example of this one school for bad actions other schools are guilt of too. We shouldn’t object to making an example of a school doing hurtful things to vulnerable children. We should have a problem if the same troubles aren’t being addressed in other schools.

As for the OPSB, everyone would benefit if they cleaned up their act and stopped supporting the nefarious idea that dysfunction and crime are inevitable when New Orleanians run New Orleans.

If the OPSB can’t be a good partner in the aspiration to gain indigenous rule of public schools, I weep for the soul of a beautifully tattered city and the minds of its children.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.


And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.


“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.


Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.


The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.


And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.


And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.

Why?

In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.

 

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