Columns » Max Brantley

Now what?

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Little Rock elementary teachers spoke decisively last week on a proposal to test “merit pay” in the Little Rock School District.


They voted 256 to 42 against the plan to select 50 classroom teachers by lot to compete for bonuses offered by the Walton family for increases in student test scores over the course of a school year.


Can we now agree that Little Rock teachers are not solely motivated by money?


Can we now agree that top-down administration is no more popular than it ever has been? Maybe not. Even in the aftermath of repudiation, Superintendent Roy Brooks said he wouldn’t rule out pushing for this identical idea again.


Can we now agree that it was a bad idea for private parties with no links to the Little Rock public schools, including children, to secretly try to influence policy with money (Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman) or a slick public relations effort (the source of this money is still a secret, thanks to the Arkansas Community Foundation, which laundered the $15,000 donation.)


Can we now agree that the “genius” behind the PR offensive insulted teachers by suggesting that a vote for the untested idea might be worth some new furniture?


Can we now agree that teachers resented being ordered to attend mandatory meetings to hear the PR pitch?
Can we agree that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page didn’t influence Little Rock school teachers, except negatively, by deriding them?


Now some things that the other side of this divide might consider:
Can we agree that the Little Rock School Board, perhaps a majority, is unhappy with the Classroom Teachers Association?


Can we agree that the public is owed every assurance that incompetent teachers may be removed from classrooms in a clear, expeditious and constitutional process by competent principals?
Can we agree that talk of alternative forms of compensation isn’t likely to go away?


Can we agree that alternative compensation is worth considering, as long as the idea is not dictated by an administrator (or worse, purchased by outsiders with animus toward public schools.)


Can we agree that a consensus pay plan, such as the one developed by teachers and administrators in Denver, where test scores are but one element of the bonus formula, might be worth considering?


The prospect of teacher-administration cooperation seems bleak. Negotiations are supposed to begin soon on a new teacher contract. The district will be looking for give-backs. (Noted: even if a majority vote, rather than 75 percent, would have been sufficient under the contract for the merit pay experiment, it still would have failed miserably.) I suspect some board members want more than givebacks. They’d prefer an end to recognition of the Classroom Teachers Association.


North Little Rock locked out the teachers union several years ago. It was led, coincidentally, by a board member who is a top official at Hussman’s newspaper. Left with a choice of preserving their livelihoods or walking out, teachers there chose their livelihoods. In the long run, whatever the short-term solidarity of Little Rock teachers, economic forces would likely prevail here, too. The board would remove an irritant, but poison relationships with teachers for years to come.


What the Little Rock School District needs is a peacemaker, a local equivalent of Bill Clinton. Otherwise, last week’s vote will be only another bruising round in a nonproductive fight.

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