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Hear the Echoes #23 - Friday, July 22, 2011

Hear the Echoes No.23


What’s troubling the Louisiana RSD?


                There is trouble emerging with the state-managed schools taken over by the Recovery School District (RSD).

                The New York Times reports a couple of years ago that the New Orleans Lafayette Academy’s for-profit education management organization (EMO) has legal action filed against it to recover $350,000 in unearned profit when the company was fired for failure to perform.

                Baton Rouge parents voted with their feet failing to enroll their children in the charter schools taken over by the RSD.  Then two schools operated by Edison Learning under charter by 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge are unable to pay its teachers and Edison is terminated.

                Now the Gulen-operated charter, Abramson, in New Orleans has its charter cancelled and its Baton Rouge Kenilworth School put under investigation by the State Department of Education amidst an assortment of charges including a purported bribery attempt.

                Louellen, another for-profit EMO, walks away from two schools in New Orleans citing financial difficulties for failing to continue operating.

                Parents in New Orleans, finally despairing at gaining a fair hearing from BESE and the State Department, take legal action in federal court to protest the RSD’s non-response to complaints about lack of appropriate special education services.

                Following five years of operation, the RSD still does not manage to raise performance levels to the state average in most schools.  Violating its own contract terms, BESE renews charters for 12 organizations even though they failed to reach academic standards in their charter contracts and, 11 of those schools had failed to make timely financial reports also required by contract. Also, RSD charters routinely refuse freedom of information data when requested to do so.

                All of these governance trials and tribulations occurred while the RSD has poured significantly greater resources into its schools than those available to the rest of public schools. Even in its sixth year of operation the RSD spends about 30 percent more per student than the state average.  And that amount is down significantly from prior years.

                There is, however, an even greater problem in the RSD schools!

                Local schools develop a community institutional identity.  Principals and teachers are one with the community, are recognized as neighbors and valued by the neighborhood.  RSD’s reliance on the two-year contracted Teach for America (TFA) teaching program converts schools into a transient persona.  Less than a third of TFA teachers exceed their two-year contract in classroom teaching posts.  Quite often they do not stay their whole two year term.

                The ability of a young student to maintain contact with a past teacher that really made a difference is unlikely in the transient teaching pool manned by TFA thus depriving the social context which can form an important part of a student’s learning experience.

                Combined, all of these problems might be acceptable were RSD operations meeting well-advertised goals.  Promises, glibly made to the Louisiana legislature considering Act 35 five years ago, are now distant memories and the three-year performance turnaround cycle is well hidden in that legislation.

                The underlying assumption that "choice” automatically delivers improvement overlooks the fact that a 12-percent profit was paid to the for-profit EMOs. This money, taken out of the classroom, is a barrier to improving student learning. 

                The decentralization of services from the central office to individual schools creates more operational distance between them and the students and their classrooms.  Add to those inefficiencies the monstrous doubling of student bus transport cost dictated by "choice” and the troubles in the RSD funding issue is clear.

                There is something even more troubling when one delves into their scant   claims of school improvement.

                When locally operated public schools fail for three years to meet academic goals, the state takes over their operation.  When the RSD fails three years running to meet goals, it changes its management and starts over again with no accountability hurdles for an additional three years; and with no Student Performance Score (SPS) requirement either.  Currently, there are 21 RSD schools in New Orleans with no SPS’s.  Claims can then be made that fewer students are attending failing schools, but these 21 RSD schools are not even included in the statistics.

                Beyond that, individual school scores can be made to look better when their test scores are scrubbed in ways that other public school scores are not. Perhaps one in every eight scores of some RSD schools is not counted in determining its SPS.

                The consequence of such skewed statistics has led much of America to believe in a New Orleans miracle.  Close examination of conditions will give many reformers heartburn when the truth emerges from the smoke and mirror claims being made about New Orleans portfolio RSD schools.

                Management of these schools has provided the city with a tiered school system with some children gaining the opportunity for an exceptional education, some students being fairly well educated, and a large student body suffering with sub-standard opportunity.

                As the on-going investigation of the Turkish-run New Orleans Abramson school progresses, perhaps it will be expanded to include the many other practices that routinely bring complaints from New Orleans parents.


Don Whittinghill

LSBA Consultant

July 22, 2011


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