New Orleans’ Recovery School District:

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The Lie Unveiled – Part II
Reprinted from Mercedes Schneider’s EduBlog

A Closer Look at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Conflicts of Interest Two notable BESE members are Chas Roemer and Kira Orange-Jones. They have astounding conflicts of interest as BESE board members. Let’s begin with Roemer.

The Roemers

Chas Roemer

Chas Roemer

Chas Roemer, newly-installed in January 2013 as BESE president, is a fount of idiocy when he speaks. Consider the following statements, all taken from a February 2013 article in The Monroe News Star:

“We should set people free and then hold them accountable” (said in support of the Neville charter in Monroe, LA). (“Freedom”: Nothing else matters; do what you want. “Accountability”: High test scores are all that matter. Build your own scaffold. BESE/DOE will provide the noose.)

Roemer said charter schools are held to strict accountability standards through the state’s ability to revoke charters after three years if the school is failing. (An open invitation for charter school fraud: Milk the system; take the millions, then move on in three years without repercussions.)

“If we don’t get our business straight, then we run the risk of losing our customer.” (As though public schools are businesses where students, the “customers,” can opt out of compulsory education.) Roemer said this in support of vouchers already declared unconstitutional for using public school funds, and that fewer than two percent of students chose to access this year.)

Caroline Roemer Shirley

Caroline Roemer Shirley

Roemer is vocal about his support of charter schools despite an astounding and glaring conflict of interest because of his sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley.

The LouisianaVoice inquired as to the legality of Baton Rouge BESE member Chas Roemer’s voting on matters involving charter schools that come before the board. Roemer’s sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley, is executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and has already been directed by the Ethics Board not to speak at BESE meetings on behalf of matters concerning charter schools or to talk to BESE members about charter school matters because of her brother’s membership on the board.

Chas Roemer, however, has consistently voted on matters concerning charter schools and in some cases, even made motions to approve or not approve certain agenda items concerning charter schools.

Roemer’s membership on BESE has been a source of rancor for groups opposing his unabated support for charter schools because of his role at LAPCS. The group advocates for expanding charter schools in the state and loosening restrictions on teacher tenure. And while the state’s top ethics committee ruled in 2008 that Caroline Roemer cannot appear before BESE, LAPCS is not restricted. Chas Roemer was not asked to recuse himself from hearings when LAPCS is present, though sections 1112 and 1120 of the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics indicate that he should.

A look at BESE meeting minutes in January of 2011 reveals (PDF) Chas Roemer voted on renewing the charters of multiple charter schools (Type 5 Charter Schools) that are members of the charter school association his sister leads. Some of those include the McDonogh schools, which belong to the KIPP and Algiers charter school networks.

The ethics board is apparently fine with Chas and Caroline’s connection, since Chas has been installed as not only a BESE member, but of late as BESE president, and is openly vocal in support of charters. Meanwhile, Caroline is still allowed to frequent BESE meetings, where one is allowed to use electronic devices to communicate during the meetings.

Caroline Roemer Shirley is also very much involved in the oft-referenced, dealings of one charter in particular, Lycee Francais, a French immersion charter that splintered from another combination Montessori/immersion school. Unlike most charters, Lycee Francais is authorized directly through BESE rather than RSD or Orleans. And Lycee Francais has a brief yet tumultuous history. The school has been steeped in turmoil, including failing to openly advertise its student openings; experiencing an $85,000 budget shortfall, using questionable admissions standards (very low percentage of minority students admitted); experiencing the abrupt resignation of its CEO; and suffering the suspected capriciousness of its board. The Lycee Francais board has retained the services of ALEC-member attorneys Adams and Reese in the wake of records requests.

John White

John White

John White is protecting this school. For example, when BESE member Lottie Beebe asked for a report on the school based upon concerns raised by her constituents, White brushed off the request (White also later excludes Beebe from this communication regarding his “assistance” to Lycee Francais). In December 2012, the state had intervened and hired a consultant to oversee “swift” changes, including the hiring of a new CEO and changing the school’s board:

Roemer Shirley said board members were open to the intervention (John White’s directing the charter school operation via a hired consultant), adding that it’s the first time she’s seen a charter authorizer step in this way.

Since White/BESE is ”charter authorizer,” is it not a conflict of interest for White to assist one charter school in particular with “succeeding” if as state superintendent he has not offered such “assistance” to other Louisiana charter schools?

In all of this, I cannot help but ask, why is BESE in charge of this school? Why the special treatment for Lycee Francais? Hiring attorneys in the wake of a records request? White’s snubbing Beebe’s request for a report on the school? The hiring of a consultant?

And keep in mind that Caroline Roemer Shirley is also promoting the false message that the Louisiana charter schools “are outperforming their non-charter school peers on student achievement”:

“Due to our state’s embrace of the charter school movement, Louisiana is one of a handful of states that is closing the achievement gap between African-American students and their White counterparts,” said Caroline Roemer Shirley, Executive Director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. “Now that charter schools have proven their effectiveness at improving learning for African-American students, we need to continue to share how they’re achieving these academic successes with all public schools so the entire system improves.”

I did mention that Lycee Francais is extremely racially unbalanced, did I not? How could Lycee Francais “close the achievement gap between African-American students and their White counterparts” when Lycee Francais is overwhelmingly White?

As The New Orleans Imperative notes:

“Latest Census results indicate that New Orleans’ population is approximately 60 percent Black. Forty-two percent of New Orleans’ children live in poverty. If the goal of the charter school movement is to serve the communities in which the schools are located, why are there so few Black children at Lycee Francais? Why are there no poor children at Lycee Francais? … It is clearly obvious the Lycee Francais has manipulated its enrollment practices with BESE approval to basically insure a white student population, which is not representative of New Orleans.”

Another bit of information worthy of note is that the controversial Lycee Francais makes absolutely no appearance on the 2012 school-level data offered by DOE.

In her praise of charter performance, Roemer Shirley does not include this caution from the Education Law Center regarding so-called “comparisons” of charter versus non-charter (traditional public school) performance:

“Some of these results [favoring charter schools] may be somewhat misleading. In particular, some of the benefits attributed to charter schools may actually be a result of study designs or due to differences in student bodies between charters and regular public schools.”

Though Roemer Shirley cites a Stanford study lauding charter performance, she is silent regarding the possibility that unusually high score gains might be the result of cheating (documents under Freedom of Information were just released under duress, so more on this to come). Also, Roemer Shirley is silent about school performance scores and cohort graduation rates, particularly of RSD, which advertises 12 traditional and 58 charter schools for New Orleans on its website. In the course of this post, I will discuss RSD school grades and graduation rates. They reveal that the so-called “achievement gap” has not moved and that the oft-pronounced RSD “success” is a fiction.

Orange-Jones

jones - lie unveiledNow, let us turn our attention to the second BESE member I mentioned whose presence poses an incredible conflict of interest: Kira Orange-Jones.

Consider the following information from www.tribunetalk.com regarding Orange-Jones’ campaign funding of her race for a BESE seat:

“Why did nearly 25 percent (almost $60,000) of the more than $241,000 in campaign contributions to BESE candidate Kira Orange Jones come from out-of-state contributors? Why are more than one-third of her contributors from outside of Louisiana? Who are these people and why are they so concerned about who represents the New Orleans area and other surrounding parishes on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education? The reality is that the list of Orange Jones’ major contributors reads like a who’s who of Teach for America top brass.”

Why so much TFA support for Orange-Jones? Orange-Jones is the executive director of TFA’s Greater New Orleans office. Like Chas Roemer, Kira Orange-Jones’ presence on BESE raises questions about a conflict of interest. However, the ethics board ruled in Orange-Jones’ favor, despite her title of TFA executive director.

The argument in favor of Orange-Jones is that she has no “controlling interest” in TFA. There is no mention of the extravagant financial support Orange-Jones’ campaign received from high-ranking TFAers. It is the elephant in the ethics committee room. If Orange-Jones’ position on BESE carried only “rank and file” significance, why did she raise 34 times the money as her opponent if not for her ability to influence BESE in matters TFA and corporate reform?

And here is another elephant: John White, who pushed for approval of that $960,000 TFA grant in October 2012, is himself alumni of TFA and of Broad, a foundation where TFA President and Founder Wendy Kopp currently sits on the board. In fact, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once sat on a Broad board. And Eli Broad himself contributed to Orange-Jones:

To support Orange Jones’ campaign against [Louella] Givens, Eli Broad, billionaire head of the education reform organization the Broad Foundation and a major trainer and placer of school superintendents, chipped in $5,000.

Are we so foolish as to believe a “controlling interest” can only take the form of a direct route? Corporate reform specializes in laundered, indirect routes, in complex arrangements of favors begetting favors. Through White and Orange-Jones, Eli Broad himself is sitting on the BESE board.

John White’s Information Hiding Game

Even though White and BESE approved a $960,000 grant for TFA in October 2012, White continues to withhold specifics regarding the degree of TFA presence in Louisiana’s schools. Why hide TFA? Is it possible that TFA is not the miracle it purports? Louisiana Voice’s Tom Aswell is pursuing Freedom of Information requests of DOE documents related to TFA specifics in Louisiana’s schools.

John White hides specifics because he knows that detailed information, even if it is a lie, can lead to probing and scrutiny, which can, in turn, unveil the truth. Take Tom Aswell’s request for emails concerning the justification for altering the DOE website. White said that he revised the website based upon complaints from users. Wanting to verify this, Aswell made a records request of White/DOE:

[We made requests for] a list of complaints about the Louisiana Department of Education’s web page that White said prompted his decision to revamp the page, which to a mish mash of a web page that is about as user friendly as a sidesaddle on a Hampshire hog.

What Aswell received after beginning legal proceedings for the information was as follows:
Because White made such a big production of the complaints he said he received about the old format of the department’s web page which led to the complete revamp of the page, we decided to call his bluff and ask for those complaints.

What we got instead of complaints about the old web page was a stream of complaints about the current format, including one writer who, in the email’s subject line wrote “YOUR NEWLY DESIGNED WEBSITE SUCKS,” and who then proceeded to chastise the department for the misspelling of “receive.” (Yep, that’s the way your new DOE website spells receive.) “For crying out loud, USE YOUR SPELLCHECKER!” the Monroe critic wrote, adding, “Please correct this and make this site professional, not juvenile.”

Another wrote: “Many of your links lead to errors. Come on, man!”

“I am unable to locate information that I need to do my job. If we no longer have a website that is user friendly, what are we expected to do?” asked another.

Strangely, however, there were no complaints provided by White about the old web site even though he said the changes were made pursuant to “many complaints” about the old site.

One of White’s ploys was to remove or make otherwise virtually unlocatable the DOE data on Louisiana’s schools.

After all, it is easier to proclaim the RSD miracle if no one can verify the fraud.

However, those trained in research develop an almost-instinctive habit of downloading and saving data files. We also actively seek to cross-reference questionable data files with other files (for example, cross-referencing state and federal data files; cross-referencing files posted for public use with those sent privately to administrators). And often, a beautiful exchange occurs in which we are able to distill truth from confusion.

Part III of New Orleans’ Recovery School District: The Lie Unveiled will examine the academic performance of the RSD and schools under its direct and in-direct control.

Mercedes Schneider, Ph.D., is a veteran educator and native of St. Bernard Parish. She earned her doctoral degree in applied statistics and research methods, with a counselor education concentration from the University of Northern Colorado. Before returning to the New Orleans metropolitan area, she was a faculty member in the Department of Educational Psychology, Teachers College at Ball State University.