Arkansas school report 'objective'? 

Not exactly. Task force has a conservative bent.

The 166-page report on education in Arkansas released Monday by the Koret Task Force was billed by Gov. Mike Huckabee as an objective outsiders’ perspective on what state leaders need to do to improve the state’s schools.

An outsiders’ perspective, certainly. But to call it objective is, at best, stretching it.

The Koret Task Force is an arm of the Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University (its overseers include Walter Hussman, publisher of the editorially conservative Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a financial backer of controversial “merit pay” experiments in Little Rock public schools). The task force’s members are education scholars, many of whom have strong ties — both ideologically and financially — to conservative organizations that promote “market-driven” public education ideas such as vouchers and allowing private, for-profit companies to manage public schools.

Huckabee invited the task force in late 2004 to evaluate Arkansas’s education system and recent reforms. Earlier that year, the task force had released a study of the education system in Texas, and its recommendations were translated almost unchanged into legislation there by the majority Republican legislature.

That’s not likely to happen in Arkansas, though, where Huckabee will be out of office by the time the legislature — not historically inclined to follow his lead on education policy anyway — reconvenes in 2007. Still, the task force’s report here is certain to be used by prominent business owners who have already been promoting the ideas it contains.

The task force’s chairman, Chester Finn, is also president and chairman of the board of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, another conservative education think tank. Finn was an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan and is one of the most prominent conservative education experts in the country. He has been affiliated with other conservative think tanks as well — including the Manhattan Institute and the Hudson Institute. And he was a founding partner of the Edison Project, a for-profit company set up to manage public schools.

Then there’s Paul Peterson, a Harvard-based political scientist and researcher who’s been funded in the past by the pro-voucher Olin Foundation. Research he did in the late 1990s on a voucher program in Milwaukee that concluded public school students who used vouchers to attend private schools did better than their counterparts who stayed in public schools was later widely discredited in the education community.

In the Koret Task Force’s report on Arkansas education, Peterson co-authored a chapter on charter schools and school choice with John Chubb, who’s chief education officer and a founder of Edison Schools — in other words, Chubb has a financial interest in promoting the idea that public schools should be turned over to private, for-profit management companies.

Other members of the task force have been long-time proponents of vouchers and charter schools, as well as using free-market principles to reconfigure public education systems.

So it’s no surprise that the task force’s recommendations include removing virtually all restrictions on charter schools: They should be automatically excused from all but a few education regulations, including existing collective bargaining agreements in the case of a school that converts from traditional to charter status. Nor should the state Board of Education be the sole authorizer of charter schools — public universities and non-profit education and community development organizations should also be given that authority, according to the task force. On the other hand, the state and local school districts should give charter schools more money to pay for facilities and other capital needs, as well as transportation.

The task force would also radically revamp how the state certifies and pays teachers. Instead of requiring an education degree of would-be teachers, the state instead should certify anyone with a bachelor’s degree who can pass a “rigorous” test of subject matter content and a criminal background check, then provide training in teaching techniques after teachers are already hired and in the classroom.

As for how those teachers would be paid, the task force recommended putting in a system that would be largely based on teachers’ performance as determined, at least in part, by their students’ standardized test scores.

Gary Ritter, an education policy expert at the University of Arkansas who served as a liaison between the task force members and state education leaders and lawmakers, said he expects many state educators to dismiss the task force’s report because of who produced it — but that he’d like to see them separate the message from the messenger and debate the ideas on their own merits.

“People hear ‘Hoover Institute’ and ‘Koret Task Force’ and think ‘Ooh, these guys are enemies of public education,” said Ritter. “But we aren’t going to not talk to people because they’re viewed as enemies of public education.”

Still, Ritter was careful to separate the university from the task force.

“We want to be very clear that we’re not necessarily promoting any of the reforms these guys are suggesting, but we’re not necessarily against them, either,” he said.

Ritter also pointed out that much of the task force’s recommendations work within the existing structure of the public education system — such as making changes to state academic standards and testing systems.

Dan Marzoni, president of the Arkansas Education Association, dismissed both the messengers and much of the message. The task force members are interconnected as a group with “a very conservative set that has an agenda to somehow improve public education by destroying it,” he said: harming public education in order to further the cause of privatizing it.

Certifying anyone with a bachelor’s degree is “absurd,” Marzoni said. “Just because you can pass a subject knowledge test in history doesn’t make you a good teacher.”

And implementing a statewide performance-based pay system? “Almost an absurdity,” Marzoni said, because it would take scarce financial resources from other areas.

As for the task force’s suggestions on strengthening standards, Marzoni said the state is already doing that. (The state Department of Education revisits subject-matter standards on a revolving six-year schedule.)

“Revamping standards is a great idea,” he said, “but you still have to teach them.”


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