by Max Brantley
I filed an FOI request with the Rogers School District yesterday for any documents, letters, notes or e-mails related to a private entity's offer to make the $2 million private match necessary to compete for a $5 million federal grant to institute a merit pay (or however you wish to call it) program for teachers in the Rogers schools.
I was told not a single piece of documentary evidence existed -- with or without the name of the private entity -- with any information relevant to the donor or even discussions about the program. Not even an e-mail of happiness about the offer from one school district employee to another. A spokesman said all communication had been done orally.
I expressed skepticism, but what are you going to do as a citizen unless you have pockets deep enough to sue to test the truthfulness of such representations? You'll remember that this caught my attention when a deputy superintendent in Rogers said of the private donor, "They have purchased the right to decide whether or not they are going to be private or public. It's their choice and if they choose to be public, that's their business."
UPDATE: I got a call after I left last night from the truly pleasant person in Rogers delegated to talk to the crazy man in Little Rock who thinks the public ought to know who's paying to influence policy in taxpayer-owned public entities.
She said that the private contributor had given permission -- note that the Rogers School District had not decided on its own to do this -- to release its identity, in part because a formal notification letter is to be mailed shortly and would be clearly within the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. At least it will be until an exemption for such is formally written into law. As a matter of case law, one Little Rock judge (a UA grad), already has ruled that rich peoople (in that case, again the Waltons) are entitled to secrecy when they buy influence at the University of Arkansas.
Apologies for reversing the normal order of newswriting and saving the news for last. But I figure most of you knew the answer already.
The donor is, of course, the Walton Family Foundation, which is pushing merit pay proposals and charter schools all over, with a focus on school districts that have strong teacher organizations, coincidentally. A department at the heavily Walton-subsidized University of Arkansas, the department also subsidized by the Waltons, is helping the district get the money and, if Little Rock is a guide, the Walton-backed department will evaluate the success of the Rogers program that the Waltons are sure is the solution to American education. Heck, why wait for the results. Let's just save time and declare it a success now.
As a story about the Little Rock merit pay experiment in the Democrat-Gazette this morning illustrated, the evaluators will figure out a way to group test schools against the right grouping of other schools to make the numbers look good. If a non-merit school exceeds the merit schools, they'll average that school's scores in with less successful schools to prove their point. And they won't test against known non-merit schools with good results. And they won't break down results in the schools for comparisons of relevant demographic groups from school to school. And they won't explain the underlying numbers alchemy by which they come up with their formulas for comparison. And they won't study for cheating. And they won't consider the teaching of the tests. And they won't explain how a supposedly numbers-based "objective" criterion can be applied by principal's whim to support staff who aren't in the classroom. And in time, the Trojan horse will take over the school and the education world will be driven by tests, not learning, and everything and everyone will be diminished by it, not the least teacher pay.