The secret's out 

In a largely positive article Sunday about performance-based bonuses for public school teachers, the Democrat-Gazette provided, in passing, the answer to a question that the daily newspaper had ignored for months.

It was indeed Walter Hussman, the newspaper’s publisher, who provided $145,000 for a pilot program last year at Meadowcliff school to pay bonuses to teachers whose students showed gains on a national standardized test. (The students didn’t do so well on the test by which the state judges academic achievement.) The school district is using its own money to continue the program this year. And, the D-G finally acknowledged, Hussman has promised to pay to try the merit pay experiment in another school, Wakefield.

Until now, the source of the money had been a secret. It was laundered through the Little Rock Public Education Foundation. Both experiments were authorized without public discussion or vote by the school board. The school district also bypassed the required vote by teachers in the affected schools.

It’s hardly surprising that the belated disclosure of the benefactor was given exclusively to the Democrat-Gazette. The school district has bent over backwards to accommodate Hussman and his pet ideas for improving school performance. The district badly wants the ancillary benefit – friendliness toward the school district from the newspaper.

I had written that secrecy about who is influencing public school policy is a bad idea. Hussman was quoted Sunday as saying the Public Education Foundation “feels like it is probably better to be more transparent.” His newspaper, our daily watchdog, clearly hadn’t been bothered by such secrecy.

Hussman is among several powerful businessmen with specific ideas about improving education, from charter schools to vouchers. People like the Waltons, Murphys, Stephenses and Hussmans like merit pay because they don’t like unions or standardized wage scales based on seniority.

Rewards for exceptional achievement might be a good idea. But it is difficult to do it fairly and productively for a large workforce with similar jobs. Absent a pay scale, favoritism and whim would run rampant. I’m skeptical, too, about overreliance on test scores, problematic in so many ways. It encourages cheating, for one thing.

Hussman said he had wanted anonymity because he wanted the focus on the project. But, unavoidably, his philosophy and its influence on a public institution are of interest, too. For whatever reasons, he didn’t choose public schools for his three children. I can’t speak for him, but I have heard from others who support his experiment. They, too, have rejected public schools. They believe they are substandard and that the teachers are the problem. They believe that any change is good, even if it means employing theories with spotty or nonexistent track records.

I happen to think, based on two kids’ experience, that the schools are better than these people know, though still in need of improvement. It also does a disservice to hundreds of dedicated people to brand the whole teacher corps as mediocre placeholders motivated only by cash.

But, a defender of the merit pay experiment said to me, “isn’t it wonderful to have the paper writing nice things about the school for a change?” Sure. But renting out policy power secretly to a critic of schools he’s never tried? That’s a steep price for good press. At least it’s no longer a secret.


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