Columns » Max Brantley

Check that gift horse

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Somebody has to look in the mouth of a gift horse – a bonus pay experiment in the Little Rock School District. The Little Rock School Board is set to vote today (Sept. 9) on using its own money to continue a bonus plan for teachers at Meadowcliff Elementary School. It was funded last year with $138,000 from an anonymous donor who laundered his tax-deductible gift through the Little Rock Public Education Foundation. The Foundation goes where the money is. The usual suspects – the Walton Foundation first – have very specific ideas about education reform. They think overtested students in public schools need still more testing. They hate unions. They believe teachers won’t try hard enough to educate kids unless you bribe them. This modern-day Good Suit Club of conservative businessmen failed to get a statewide “norm-referenced,” or national, testing bill through the Arkansas legislature in 2003. They hate the criteria-referenced state benchmark exam, which happens to determine school district success and failure under state law. So the Good Suit gang has turned to Little Rock as a laboratory. With the Public Education Foundation as a cutout, they’ve implemented and declared success on incentive pay at Meadowcliff. Dramatic improvements were recorded there on the national Stanford test results last school year and bonuses were paid. (They aren’t talking much about Meadowcliff’s results on the state benchmark test.) If 75 percent of the teachers at Meadowcliff vote to continue the program (and they will), the School Board is certain to pick up the tab to continue the experiment. I don’t oppose new education ideas. Some of the Good Suit Club’s ideas might work. But I’m leery of allowing an anonymous person to rent out the school district to test his personal theories. Plus, over-reliance on tests is a mighty incentive to teach the test and to manipulate test results. Add money to the equation and you increase the potential for fraud. If these programs do work, they should be offered districtwide. That’s what the Classroom Teachers Association asks. For its simple request to have its legal contract honored (incentive pay is allowed only on a school’s vote and board approval), it was blasted for hating education by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. D-G publisher Walter Hussman is a believer in “norm-referenced” testing and other conservative think-tank strategies (though not in sending his kids to public school). Little Rock school officials undoubtedly appreciate a ceasefire in D-G editorial abuse in return for implementing the publisher’s pet ideas. But that doesn’t mean Superintendent Roy Brooks should hop like a toad when Hussman or his shills say jump. The D-G editorial conveniently omitted the fact that the teachers union contract specifically allows merit pay plans. The union had earlier accepted incentive pay deals at Rockefeller and Stephens schools, but apparently was never told about the Education Foundation’s secret deal. The D-G and the rich private school patrons who bankroll the Foundation prefer to ignore contract law and demonize the teachers union as enemies of education. It is a blood libel of teachers -- and parents like me who appreciate them. We labored through dark years seeking quality education when too many others had given up and had taken their kids elsewhere. The Little Rock School Board should remember all of the constituencies it serves when it starts renting out district policy to rich folks with agendas. If it must take secret money, verify the results of the little schemes independently. It’s hardly surprising that the inventors and beneficiaries of such an experiment say it worked.

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