Columns » Max Brantley

El Dorado's school success

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The Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas reported recently that it had found precisely what the Arkansas Times has noted often since the El Dorado Promise scholarship program began in 2007.

The $50 million from Murphy Oil to provide a college scholarship for every graduate of El Dorado public schools has reversed the drain of students, particularly those better off economically, from the increasingly black El Dorado school district to surrounding whiter ones. The Promise pays up to the highest tuition and mandatory fees charged at any Arkansas public university. Students can also take that money, now about $7,800 annually, out of state.

The UA report contained the important finding that El Dorado students outperformed peers on math and reading tests. Better still, gains in math and literacy were even greater among black and low-income groups, typically groups that lag the most.

A UA researcher called the work to my attention. Surely I'd want to cheer UA work that I liked, wouldn't I? Indeed I would, though it doesn't alter my thinking that the Walton-funded UA division too often functions as a cheerleader for the school agenda of their patrons, the heirs to the vast Walton fortune. Charter schools. Vouchers. Merit pay. The evils of teacher unions and tenure. And so on.

It's to the UA's credit that it is touting the research and El Dorado, where more than 300 students received a Promise scholarship this week. It's evidence of the flaws in the Walton billionaires' demonizing of conventional school districts and the premise that charters and vouchers are the solution.

Faced with a school problem in El Dorado, some rich guys "threw money" at the conventional school district, to use the popular sneering phrase. Eureka! It worked.

The good news is not solely rooted in the college scholarship program.

The Murphy money — credit much of it to former Murphy CEO Claiborne Deming, also a charter school club member, I'm sorry to say — also has been thrown at financial rewards for students who hit targets on standardized tests, such as AP tests. They threw money at math, science and foreign language specialists. They threw money at math camps for black students.

Where other districts struggle under fractious leadership, El Dorado enjoyed the calm and steady hand of Superintendent Bob Watson, who'll retire this summer after a remarkable 29 years as superintendent.

Watson is the kind of leader who could rally support for a tax increase in a city trending solidly Republican to build a magnificent high school. I've toured it with Watson. It's not only a temple for students. It was designed to open its doors to the broader community every day in after-school hours. They built a high school worthy of the championship football team, as they like to say at Rotary Club.

Watson doesn't buy teacher trash talk. It's popular among the billionaires to believe that calcified college-trained educators are easily replaced by a revolving corps of brainy Ivy Leaguers. Watson told an interviewer once:

 "People will say teachers are not as good as they used to be, they're not as focused, they're not as dedicated, and I don't agree with that. I think they're better prepared. I've seen that over the years."

El Dorado could have gone the charter school route. But its leaders had to know this would mean further deterioration of the core school district and, with it, the whole city, already in population decline.

Instead, they fixed the existing school district.

Imagine if the Waltons would throw a comparable amount of money at a Little Rock Promise.

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