Columns » Max Brantley

Our 'public' schools

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The Democrat-Gazette reprinted Sunday a column by one of the Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial writers. It trumpeted the first year of an experiment at Little Rock's Meadowcliff Elementary. There’s been no serious analysis yet of the results, either for score manipulation or by comparison with the important state benchmark tests results. But the Little Rock School Board voted to spend public money to continue the experiment another year at Meadowcliff.

And, the Wall Street Journal editorialist disclosed, “Another grade school, with private funding, will now try the Meadowcliff project.”

Thanks for the scoop, WSJ. There’d been nothing in the local paper about this. No public action by the School Board. It’s true, Superintendent Roy Brooks confirmed. The secret donor is financing a larger experiment this year at Wakefield Elementary. The pre-test has already been done.

Brooks said it was up to the private Public Education Foundation to decide when the public would be informed. “This is not district funds here,” Brooks said. No, just our building, payroll and kids. It’s an arguable ethics violation, too, to hide the source of money spent to influence public policy.

Merit pay hasn’t been rated a conclusive success anywhere I know of. High-stakes testing is an invitation to cheating (check the best-selling “Freakonomics” for a primer). Debates rage on merits of the “norm-referenced” Stanford test used at Meadowclifff and the “criteria-based” Benchmark Test on which government approval of schools happens to be based. Meadowcliff students did poorly on the latter.

Opponents believe merit pay is a back-door way to limit automatic annual pay increases and cripple teacher unions. Given the fat cats who form the merit pay claque, you can understand the suspicion.

So who’s the donor? Did he send own kids to public schools? Is he a voucher buff, working on the uninformed assumption that Little Rock schools — which regularly lead the state in National Merit winners — are wholly failing and need to be eventually privatized?

Teachers unions can support merit pay. When it’s not linked to up-or-down testing of a complex organism, a classroom with disparate learners. When offered to all teachers, without favoritism, on top of an honorable wage. When given for national board certification and extra work.

At a minimum, merit pay should be transparent — advance notice of a public meeting to debate the idea before a public vote. Instead, school officials paid obeisance to a shadowy fat cat with a pet project, its wonders now touted uncritically in the right-wing local daily and a national counterpart. Perhaps a tardy debate will follow the Classroom Teachers Association’s grievance this week that the district again violated its labor contract. The contract requires a vote by Wakefield’s teachers (likely pro forma) to approve the supplemental pay deal.

It was a given that the Public Education Foundation would become a tool for the Hussmans, Stephenses and Waltons of the world to insinuate their education philosophy into Little Rock public schools. But who knew policy-making power was for sale so cheap? Or that we’d get the news from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It’s an insult to Little Rock taxpayers. 

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