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Nest of reformers

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  • Jay P. Greene

One man's reform may be another man's reaction. The director of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform tacitly conceded the point when he said that a similar entity on a different campus would probably be called the "Department of Education Policy." But the name was chosen at Fayetteville before Jay P. Greene was hired, he said.

It was chosen, presumably, by the Walton Family Foundation, which gave a big chunk of money to establish the Department in 2005. Although the UA administration has always insisted that it makes the decisions concerning the Department's operation, not the conservative-minded Walton Foundation, suspicion remains. Members of the Walton family (the Waltons of Walmart) have long been interested in and contributed to the cause of changing the American educational system — "reforming" it, if you will. Vouchers, charter schools, and increased teacher testing are among the controversial proposals that have engaged both the Waltons and the Department of Education Reform. The increased use of phonics to teach reading, which Sandra Stotsky advocates, is another.

The Walton Family Foundation website says that the Foundation invested $159 million in K-12 education reform around the country in 2011. "The Walton Family Foundation is committed to improving K-12 student achievement in the United States at every level — in traditional public schools, charter public schools and private schools. Our core strategy is to infuse competitive pressure into America's K-12 educational system by increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents, especially in low-income communities. When all families are empowered to choose from among several quality school options, all schools will be fully motivated to provide the best possible education. Better school performance leads, in turn, to higher student achievement, lower dropout rates and greater numbers of students entering and completing college." Many supporters of public schools, including teacher unions, consider the Foundation an enemy. (They're not keen on Greene, either. When he was hired at Fayetteville, Rich Nagel, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, a teachers union, said. "Dr. Jay P. Greene has devoted his career to promoting vouchers and other measures aimed to weaken or dismantle public schools.")

Stotsky and Greene are two of the seven faculty members in the Department. Liberals would consider these professors a conservative group, but Greene says there's diversity. "We have Democrats and Republicans. We don't all agree on everything."

One of the group, Robert Costrell, recently was named to Mitt Romney's advisory committee on education. Costrell has worked for Romney before, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts. Greene notes that another Education Reform professor, Robert Maranto, once worked in the Clinton administration, "although he calls himself a conservative."

A UA news release on Costrell's appointment said: "University of Arkansas policy states that university employees have the right to engage in political activity. Costrell is not being paid for the advisory role in Romney's campaign. In the past, University of Arkansas faculty members have served in a variety of advisory roles to presidential campaigns, including several who advised then-Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign for president in 1992. Numerous political science students have served internships with presidential campaigns as well."

The Department has a national reputation, Greene said. In September, two of the professors testified about school accountability before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on education. Two others recently wrote articles on their opposing views of charter schools for the magazine published by the American Association of School Administrators. (Some would be surprised to find the Department not unanimous in support of charter schools, but Paul Hewitt, a former school superintendent in California, takes an opposing view.) According to a UA news release, a school choice demonstration project based in the Department found that a school voucher program in Milwaukee increased the chances of students graduating from high school and going on to college.

Department faculty do their own research, Greene said, and they write mostly books, book chapters and peer-reviewed articles. "But we also do popular writing, newspaper articles," like Stotsky's on phonics, he said.

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