John Walker went to court to force the Little Rock Public Education Foundation to release their board meeting minutes under the state Freedom of Information Law, and the PEF went to court to keep them from the public eye.
The PEF lost, and the minutes are now available to anyone who cares to dig through them. What they’ll find: Much about routine matters, plus records of some interesting discussions and decisions that shed light on an organization that’s developed into a very involved and influential part of the Little Rock educational community.
The minutes trace the evolution of the foundation from its beginnings in the spring of 2002 as an attempt by then-Superintendent Ken James to boost community involvement in the Little Rock School District. There are a few possibly embarrassing moments — comments made by City Manager Bruce Moore, a PEF board member, at a May 2006 meeting about the district’s contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, for instance — but those are less interesting than the overall picture the minutes give of the foundation’s development and operations.
Foundation Executive Director Lisa Black describes the story those minutes tell as one of a group of interested community members with the time and energy to research new ways to increase student achievement in Little Rock schools, and who have always worked in partnership with district educators to determine what programs and initiatives would be most valuable.
But others look through the minutes and see a group of largely white, largely affluent people who began with good intentions, but gained a significant amount of access to and influence over district administrators and policy-making.
The Public Education Foundation was founded to be a private, non-profit agency that would raise private funds to pay for programs in the Little Rock schools that tax dollars wouldn’t typically cover. But because it has received money from the school district every year — first to help pay for the executive director’s salary, which ended last November, and this year to pay for part of the costs of the SOAR assessment program, a foundation-run project — under state law, it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The PEF has historically insisted otherwise, but Walker forced the issue with a lawsuit filed in April, and Judge Jay Moody ruled against the PEF last month.
The foundation has always had a very close relationship with district leadership. James put together the original steering committee, and was the permanent board’s first secretary. Either the district superintendent or another high-ranking district administrator has attended and given a report at virtually every foundation board meeting, and the Little Rock School Board designates one of its members to sit on the foundation board as well.
Originally, its biggest project from a financial standpoint was awarding small grants to individual teachers who wanted to try innovative techniques or programs in their classrooms. It awarded $100,000 worth of grants in 2003, the program’s first year.
Every year since then, however, the grant program has shrunk. Fewer teachers apply, fewer grants are awarded, and less money gets handed out.
Instead, the foundation has focused on bigger fish.
About a year after it was founded, the foundation’s board settled on a list of strategic goals that included establishing longitudinal tracking of student test scores in the district (also called value-added assessment, where individual students’ test scores are tracked from year to year to measure their academic growth) and beginning a “teacher quality initiative” that would include a teacher hiring and retention committee.
This discussion came about six months after Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman, an advocate of conservative education reform methods, spoke to the foundation’s board and suggested, among other things, that the district needed to increase standardized testing and begin longitudinal tracking.
Hussman’s involvement with the foundation is an automatic red flag in some sectors of the LRSD community, who also believe he personally has exercised too much influence over some school board members and district administrators. Hussman’s funding of a pilot merit pay plan at two district elementary schools — kept secret until the Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial about it in October 2005 — raised a lot of questions about how the foundation operated and whether it should be allowed to implement programs in schools without school board approval.
Black said the idea for the merit pay plan originally came from the principal at Meadowcliff Elementary School, who was having problems keeping teachers at her school. She approached the foundation about a possible grant, but when Black mentioned it to Hussman, he agreed to fund it through his foundation, she said.
The first mention of the Meadowcliff program in the foundation board minutes wasn’t until August 2004, the same month that the program got underway with initial testing of Meadowcliff students. There apparently wasn’t much discussion then, just an outline of what had been done so far. A year later, the minutes show that board members were told that the foundation would ask the school district to take over funding for the Meadowcliff program so the “individual anonymous donor” could fund an identical start-up program at Wakefield Elementary. Board members decided to form a committee to deal with the incentive-pay program and the issue overall.
At the October 2005 meeting — after the Wall Street Journal editorial ran, forcing the foundation to talk about the Meadowcliff program publicly — the minutes mention that the foundation’s committee has been analyzing the methods used in the incentive-pay program, and that “It has also been questioned whether the scope of the overall project changed from its original intent. … Going forward, the PEF committee has questioned whether the project will be perceived as fair to all teachers since it can currently only be tested at a few schools. If the project can not be sustained, then it represents a change in strategy from one of growing capacity within the LRSD to one of policy shaping.” The foundation would decide whether to continue to support and manage the Meadowcliff and Wakefield projects, according to the minutes.
Not long after, Hussman’s funding of the programs became public.
Black defended the foundation’s decision not to tell the public about the Meadowcliff incentive-pay project when it started in 2004. School board members knew about it and supported it, she said, even though it was never discussed at a board meeting. The foundation wanted to be “ultra-sensitive” and not subject teachers to being “beaten up” for trying something new that might not work, she said. Without results, there wasn’t anything to tell anyway, she said.
Most of the foundation’s million-dollar-plus budget is funded through donations from corporations and other foundations.
The Hussman Foundation isn’t the only group with a political agenda that’s given a large amount of money to the PEF; the Walton Family Foundation has been a major funder of the SOAR program, which has grown into the PEF’s largest project. The foundation is a major financier of education experiments — in merit pay, charter schools and scholarship programs, among others. It helps underwrite a University of Arkansas education reform department with a similar focus (and a critical view of teacher unions).
But Black said that hasn’t influenced what the foundation decides to take on.
“The foundation and its board of directors, working with the school district, define an initiative we want to do,” she said. “Then we go out and find the money. Every entity has its own set of politics, but the foundation decides on initiatives on its own.”
Other questions about the foundation have centered on the board’s involvement with district leadership and decision-making. Moore’s comments about the teacher contract negotiations, for example, came during the May 2006 board meeting. Brooks spoke to the board about the status of the district’s negotiations with the teachers’ union, outlined the major sticking points and mentioned that even though the contract didn’t expire until the end of July, the union already had a strike team in place. What comes next implies that Brooks was sharing information with the foundation board that he wasn’t discussing in public:
“Steve Strickland asked Dr. Brooks for a 1-2 page fact sheet on negotiations so that the board could help fight the strike. He also asked why we didn’t take the problems and concerns with the contract public.”
But Black said that’s an incorrect impression — that Brooks’ regular reports to the foundation board simply summarized what had been talked about at the previous school board meeting.
Moore’s comments come next in the minutes:
“Bruce Moore asked what steps are in place if we don’t have a contract July 31? He thinks it would be devastating to start the school year with a strike. Since we are a right-to-work state we don’t have to negotiate with anyone.”
The Times reported last week that Moore said the minutes didn’t accurately reflect the context of his comments, and that what he actually said was that it was important to negotiate with the union and avoid a strike. He said he had explained that to Katherine Wright Knight, president of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association, and that she had accepted his explanation.
Wright confirmed that.
“We had a lengthy visit about it,” she said. “… He said he supported the idea of unions and of collective bargaining for employees. I have never had an indication in my four years dealing with Mr. Moore to think he didn’t have good intent.”
But Knight said she does have concerns about the foundation itself. In the beginning, she said, it seemed like the ideal way to channel private donations directly to teachers who needed extra money to try new things in their classrooms. She actually received a grant herself in 2003.
Now, she said, the foundation has changed its focus and, in her opinion, overstepped its bounds. Many teachers don’t like being required to participate in SOAR, for instance — a program that the foundation originated, but that district administrators decided to implement at all schools. SOAR is an assessment program that “spot-checks” students with tests each nine weeks to measure their progress and provide teachers with feedback on what skills their students have mastered or aren’t doing well in. The tests take more than two hours each time they’re given.
But Knight puts the blame on district leaders, not on the foundation’s board members.
“They overstepped because they were encouraged to,” she said. “I think with different leadership in the district, there would have been boundaries.”
Black, however, doesn’t think the foundation exerts too much influence. They come up with ideas like SOAR, but don’t do anything district leaders don’t want, and they work closely with administrators, principals and teachers to design the initiatives and put them into place, she said.
“There isn’t anything where the foundation just says ‘This is the way it ought to be,’ ” she said.
As for the foundation’s future now that its board meetings and documents must be open to the public, Black said educators who speak to the board likely won’t be as candid about their needs and challenges if they think what they say might be made public. But she doesn’t expect much will change.
“I think we’re going to continue to do what we’ve done” in the past, she said. “I don’t see our processes changing.”