Columns » Warwick Sabin

Strings attached

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Last Thursday, the Little Rock School Board approved expanding a merit pay program to three elementary schools. As part of the deal, the Walton Family Foundation would pay for researchers from the University of Arkansas to evaluate the results.

The merit pay model offers financial incentives to teachers based on improvements in their students’ test scores. It has been implemented in several other U.S. cities, but its effectiveness has not been proven.

That’s why merit pay advocates are eager to use Little Rock schools as their laboratory. But instead of making their case openly and subjecting it to a democratic process, they have pushed their agenda in a cunning and clandestine way, using the substantial resources at their disposal.

What they’re doing is not illegal, and they may have only the best intentions. But their actions certainly deserve scrutiny, because they involve public institutions that should never be secretly manipulated.

• The players

Leading the charge for merit pay is the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation. Its website ( identifies its “founding organizers” as Murphy Oil President and CEO Claiborne Deming, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman, Exoxemis Chairman Jackson T. “Steve” Stephens Jr. and Arvest Bank Chairman Jim Walton.

• The academic legitimacy

In January 2005, the Walton Family Foundation gave $20 million to the University of Arkansas to establish a Department of Education Reform. Later that year, the university appointed Jay Greene to chair the department. Greene came from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and he is still listed as a senior fellow there. His page on the organization’s website ( says his “issues” include school vouchers and charter schools, and he has written extensively in favor of those options.

• The public relations

Since Greene began his post in Fayetteville, his byline has appeared in Hussman’s newspaper. The articles ran in the op-ed section and made the case for merit pay.

• The tactics

The first merit pay experiment in Little Rock began at Meadowcliff Elementary School in 2004. It was financed by an anonymous donor through the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock, which was founded in November 2002 and has offices in the same building as the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation.

Roy Brooks, the school district superintendent, instituted that program without consideration by, or approval from, the school board. At first, the Public Education Foundation would not disclose who was providing the funding.

Later it was revealed that the money came from the Hussman Foundation.

Then, in early 2006, Brooks asked the school board to authorize a district-wide merit pay pilot program, “which would be funded largely by the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville and evaluated by the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s Department of Education Reform,” according to the Democrat-Gazette.

The board assented to Brooks’ request, but a vote of the teachers was required for the plan to be implemented.

Before the vote, the district called mandatory meetings where teachers watched a video presentation and received pamphlets making the case for merit pay. That marketing effort cost $15,000, and it is still unclear who supplied the money, but the video and materials were produced under the direction of Stacy Pittman, a public relations executive who sits on the advisory council of the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation.

The teachers rejected the pilot program.

• The motivation

The merit pay program announced last week will be funded jointly by the school district and private foundations, including $225,000 from the Hussman Foundation and $200,000 from the Walton Family Foundation. As mentioned above, the Walton Family Foundation also will pay for the subsequent evaluation, and a Democrat-Gazette article last Friday noted that Jay Greene will be “one of the officials who would work on the evaluation.”

So the family that paid to create a university department and hand-picked Greene to chair it is going to pay him and that department to evaluate a program it is paying for. How is that even remotely fair?

If the merit pay advocates genuinely have the best interests of public school students in mind, they should subject their ideas to objective analysis by a neutral arbiter. Instead they are being secretive and manipulative in pushing for adoption of their reforms, and they are trying to rig the results.

That leaves us to wonder why these powerful men — most of whom did not put their own children in the public school system — are spending so much money to change the way it operates.

Seeing as they are using our public university and our public schools to push their agenda, we have a right to know.

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