FAYETTEVILLE — When University of Arkansas Chancellor John White announced in January what he called “a bold new venture” — the creation of a UA Department of Education Reform — friends of public education in Arkansas were not all cheering.
Some noted that the $20 million to establish the department came from private foundations, one of them the Walton Family Foundation (the Waltons of Wal-Mart, that is), and the Waltons have been known to invest substantially in programs to benefit private schools in competition with public schools. One member of the family in particular, the late John Walton, was nationally recognized as a major contributor to school voucher and charter school programs across the country. Both concepts are repellent to public school advocates.
The more cynical observers suggested that the establishment of the Department of Education Reform might be a form of payback to the Waltons for the fabulous $300 million gift they made to the UA a couple of years ago, perhaps even a requirement of the gift. (Chancellor White has resisted revealing details of the agreement between the university and the Walton Foundation.) They speculated that the private foundations would direct the activities of the new department, supposedly a part of the College of Education and Health Professions, and that the department’s research and recommendations would unfailingly advance the educational interests of the Waltons, particularly the use of public money for vouchers to help children attend private schools.
In an interview in mid-June, Reed Greenwood, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions, assured a reporter that such fears were groundless. The idea for a “think tank” on education reform was his, not the private foundations’, he said, and the donors will not influence the work of the department. The research will be unbiased, and the department not reflexively right-wing, as many privately funded education reformers seem to be. In other words, it will not simply or automatically advocate vouchers and other conservative causes.
A few weeks later, the UA announced the appointment of the head of the new Department of Education Reform. He is Jay P. Greene, who had been a senior fellow with the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York and who has written extensively on education reform, and on one subject especially. Vouchers are his business.
A statement from Rich Nagel, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, the school teachers union:
“Dr. Jay P. Greene has devoted his career to promoting vouchers and other measures aimed to weaken or dismantle public schools. The Manhattan Institute, where he has worked for the past five years, is a far-right think tank funded by a handful of right-wing foundations and dedicated to eliminating the public schools. The Arkansas Education Association hopes that Dr. Greene will appoint faculty members with a wide range of views to the newly established Department of Education Reform he now heads at the University of Arkansas. On the other hand, if he chooses to staff his department with other ultra-conservative, anti-public education personnel, it will not bode well for the children or schools of Arkansas. The free-market solutions that ultra-conservatives peddle in the name of ‘school choice and competition’ are designed to harm public schools — not help children from low-income backgrounds who are most in need of great public schools.”
The UA announcement about the establishment of the Department of Education Reform emphasized that it would be the only thing of its kind in Arkansas, but similar to programs in place at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and other prominent universities. The conservative, privately funded Hoover Institution at Stanford is the best known university-related think tank, and is said to wield considerable influence over Republican Party policy. Hoover Institution fellows think about many subjects, and write copiously about them for op-ed pages in mostly conservative newspapers. Education reform is one of their favorite topics. Thinkers from the Hoover Institution were among the panelists at Little Rock in February for a day-long conference on improving education. There was considerable talk about home schools and charter schools and higher pay for teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests. The conference was sponsored by the UA College of Education, and Greenwood was a panelist. So was state Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a prominent advocate of public education. Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, was another panelist. The conservative editorial page of Hussman’s newspaper is often critical of public education and public educators. It applauded the creation of the Department of Education Reform.
Hussman is a member of the board of overseers of the Hoover Institution. Among his fellow Hoover overseers is Richard Mellon Scaife of Pittsburgh, the eccentric right-wing moneybags who spent millions trying to discredit and unseat President Bill Clinton. Far more than he’s spent on education reform, you’d bet.
Reed Greenwood has worked at the UA College of Education “just about all the time” since 1970, and was named dean in 2001. He began seriously considering what could be done to strengthen public education in Arkansas, and what the University of Arkansas could do to help, while serving on a blue-ribbon state commission studying education. His interest was strengthened a year ago when he went to a meeting sponsored by the Education Commission of the States, at which there was “a huge amount” of discussion of education reform.
“A number of universities are working on education reform,” he said in an interview, “and so are government agencies like the National Governors Association. There’s a lot of interest from the business community. It’s interesting work to get into.”
He came back to Fayetteville and worked up a proposal for a think tank on education reform for kindergarten and pre-school through grade 12. He decided that five areas should be studied:
• TEACHER QUALITY — “Do financial incentives produce better teachers? How do we get more young people into teaching? How do we retain good teachers, especially in urban areas?”
• PUBLIC POLICY — “This has to do with the policy development process. How is policy implemented? What are the effects? The legislature increased the minimum salary for teachers. We need to look at what happens because of that five years from now.”
• LEADERSHIP — What is good leadership at the school board level, the superintendent level, the principal level, and so on? “How do we prepare leaders? Is it good policy to require, as many states do, that principals and superintendents have a teacher’s certificate?”
• ACCOUNTABILITY — How do we determine what’s working?
• SCHOOL CHOICE — “This is somewhat more controversial than the others. Typically, the choice of school has been made by where you live, but there are other ways to provide choice — charter schools, voucher programs, magnet schools. A lot of kids in Arkansas are home-schooled.”
(People who keep up with education-reform proposals in Arkansas will notice that the most volatile of all, school consolidation, is not mentioned on Greenwood’s list, though presumably it could fit in some of the larger categories. Any department of education reform will eventually have to deal with consolidation, but a cautious reformer might want to start with something smaller and tamer.)
Having determined what he wanted to do, Greenwood addressed the question of paying for it. He approached the Windgate Charitable Foundation of Siloam Springs, which had funded College of Education programs previously. The Foundation is run by John Brown III, a former state senator and college president. Also a conservative Republican.
“The proposal we submitted was not a long proposal,” Greenwood said. “John Brown said ‘We want to fund you.’ ”
Greenwood turned to the UA for matching funds, submitting his proposal through a vice chancellor, G. David Gearhart. “I don’t submit proposals directly to the chancellor,” Greenwood said. The vice chancellor approved and so did Chancellor White, who matched Windgate’s $10 million with $10 million from the earlier Walton gift. Soon a search committee was looking for a department head. The department head will be one of six endowed chairs in the department, which will also include 10 doctoral fellows.
With all of the new department’s funding from private donors, is it possible those donors will influence the department’s research? Especially since some of them are known to favor things like vouchers and charter schools?
“I think we have to make a commitment that our research is not biased,” Greenwood said. “Unbiased research is something that’s desperately needed in education. Our donors have given their approval of that policy. We meet with them, we talk, but we don’t let any donors unduly influence what we do. Donors don’t participate in the selection of faculty. Scholarship donors don’t participate in the selection of scholars.”
Windgate is not Wal-Mart or the Waltons, but there’s a connection. In 1978, Wal-Mart bought out the Hutcheson Shoe Company of Fort Smith. A member of the Hutcheson family, Bill Hutcheson Jr., became a vice president of Wal-Mart. His mother, Dorothea Hutcheson, endowed the Windgate Foundation in 1993 with a gift of Wal-Mart stock. The foundation’s assets, close to $100 million, still consist almost exclusively of Wal-Mart stock. Windgate has been especially active in making grants for arts and crafts education.
John Brown III is a former president of John Brown University at Siloam Springs, a “Christian interdenominational” institution founded by his grandfather. The Walton Foundation has contributed to JBU. Brown has headed the Windgate Foundation since 1993. He also served eight years (1995-2002) in the state Senate. Though he was a conservative Republican, like many Northwest Arkansas legislators, he was a responsible conservative Republican, unlike some of the others, well regarded even by Democratic legislators. Education was a particular interest.
“Any reform measure needs to be research-based, and the research needs to be independent,” Brown said. “We’re looking for programs that work for kids. The department won’t be a captive to us or the Waltons. I think we’ll demonstrate that the department is dedicated to doing what’s good for Arkansas.”
On July 12, the UA announced that “The University of Arkansas has taken a significant step toward national leadership in education with the appointment of noted education researcher Jay P. Greene as head of the newly endowed department of education reform.” The news release went on to say that Greene had just spent five years as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. It did not reveal that the Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank, highly controversial in some quarters. The institute was said to be influential with Rudolph Guiliani during his tenure as mayor of New York. Its board of trustees includes well-known conservative journalists such as William Kristol and Peggy Noonan.
The UA release noted that research by Greene was cited four times in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said public money can be used for vouchers to attend church schools.
Fairly typical of Greene’s work for the Manhattan Institute is a study he did of the voucher program in Florida. One conclusion: “Florida’s low-performing schools are improving in direct proportion to the challenge they face from voucher competition. These improvements are real, not the result of test gaming, demographic shifts, or the statistical phenomenon of ‘regression to the mean.’ ”
A reporter who’d interviewed Dean Greenwood earlier called back after the announcement of Greene’s appointment. Would Greene be a controversial choice, considering his highly publicized work on vouchers? “It depends on the eye of the beholder whether that’s controversial or not,” Greenwood said. “He’s studied a number of issues of some consequence, including vouchers. He looks at what the research shows.”
Greene himself seemed a chipper sort when he telephoned a reporter from an airport, apparently happy to talk to the media. “I’ll be looking at different things in Arkansas,” he said. “Some of my high-profile work has been in vouchers, but I’ve also done considerable work on accountability testing, bilingual education, charter schools … The question before the Supreme Court [in the voucher case] was whether public funds could be used at religiously affiliated private schools as part of the Cleveland voucher program. I looked at the effects of the voucher program on racial and religious diversity. I didn’t speak to the constitutional question of separation of church and state. I found that the probability a child would attend a racially integrated school increased if he attended a private school rather than a Cleveland-area public school. The suburban Cleveland schools tended to be all-white, and the central schools all-minority, but the private sector was slightly less segregated than the public sector.”
Will he do a voucher study in Arkansas like the one he did in Florida? “I can’t. There are no voucher programs in Arkansas.”
(There doesn’t seem to be widespread support of voucher programs in Arkansas either. Indeed, one education authority said there was so little support for vouchers that the new department wouldn’t dare promote them, for fear of losing credibility immediately.)
A statement from the National Education Association, with which the Arkansas Education Association is affiliated:
“The National Education Association (NEA) is encouraged when higher education facilities, such as the College of Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, look to set up departments designed to examine ways to improve public education. Unfortunately, Jay Greene, who was reportedly named as the new department’s head, has devoted his career to promoting vouchers and other measures aimed to weaken or otherwise dismantle public education. Dr. Greene has a history of promoting vouchers as the answer to every challenge and issue facing public schools. Given Dr. Greene’s anti-public-education record and his refusal to entertain or support the need for authentic reforms supported by teachers, other educators and parents — such as smaller class sizes, quality teachers in every classroom, greater parental involvement, early childhood education, safe and clean facilities, and up-to-date textbooks and technology — there is cause for concern. NEA hopes that the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville is not headed down the slippery voucher slope that impedes the opportunity for every child to have access to a quality public education.”
State Rep. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, chairman of the House Education Committee, as well as a former teacher and teachers’ union leader, said she didn’t know enough about the Department of Education Reform to speculate on what it might bring.
But, she added, “I am familiar with the Manhattan Institute. I’ve read some of their publications. I hope he’s [Jay Greene] not bringing that philosophy here.”
State Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he welcomed “creative evaluation of our school policies,” and he was not particularly concerned about Windgate or the Waltons influencing research by the new department. “I think highly of John Brown. He’s a conservative Republican who cares about public education. He’s not elitist at all. He’s concerned about the disadvantaged kids in our system. And there’ve been a lot of instances where the Walton family has stepped up in support of public education. They’ve spent considerable money in the Delta, trying to find models for effective public education in that part of the state. They’re interested in things besides vouchers, like the best way to compensate teachers.”
Not a teacher or former teacher, Argue can be more receptive to the new department than the AEA, with whom he’s had differences. “I have some sympathy for basing compensation at least in part on merit, not just on tenure,” he said. “The teachers are closed-minded about that.”
Argue is also more open to charter schools, which the Waltons have contributed to, than are some public-school advocates, who see charter schools as merely another way to operate private schools with public money, but a way that has more political appeal than vouchers in states like Arkansas. He noted that in Arkansas, charter schools must be part of the public school system. The charter schools use experimental methods, operate outside some of the rules governing other public schools, and are resented by some of the traditional school people.
“Charter schools and vouchers shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath,” Argue said. “Charters can’t have discriminatory policies [like private schools].” Charters have had successes and failures, he said. He admires the KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program] charter school in West Helena.
“I think this sort of development [establishment of the department of education reform] is important,” Argue said. “I know of nothing that has a greater impact on the state’s future than our ability to improve our public schools. If we succeed, we’ll have a bright future. If we fail, we’ll continue to be a poor Southern state.”
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