A couple dozen school superintendents whose districts are part of the Western Arkansas Educational Cooperative were having their annual retreat last week at DeGray Lodge.
The irascibly charming septuagenarian who is director of the cooperative, an original and unreconstructed Dale Bumpers disciple named Guy Fenter, had invited me to hold forth for a second year consecutively.
So I tried to get these superintendents—Benny Gooden of Fort Smith and a bevy of smaller-school ones from Lavaca and Paris and Greenwood and so forth—into a spat with me over school choice, charter schools and performance pay for teachers. Those are issues on which I tend to wander off the liberal reservation and disappoint usual allies from what we’ll call the education establishment.
I seek in these matters a kind of Clintonian third-way finesse: I support charter schools only to the extent that they should be given the opportunity—availed by the KIPP schools, for example—to display effective methods that regular public schools should not resent and resist, but be compelled to emulate.
Yes, I understand that emulation would require that politicians give public educators more money. I’m for that. Longer school days and Saturday classes and summer classes aren’t free. KIPP has corporate backing for those kinds of things.
I don’t want charter schools to last forever and undermine public schools. I want their successful methods to be embraced by the public schools and for regular public schools to succeed to the point that alternatives are no longer so compelling. Charter schools should exist in temporary and ever-changing forms, not to show up public schools, but to show them how—not on everything, but on the latest thing.
I know that performance pay for teachers is fraught with peril. But let’s try a metaphor.
Maybe there’s a newspaper that offers a bonus to the columnist achieving the highest number in a readership survey. That might inspire a columnist to give his essays one more read-through and extra coat of polish, achieving mild improvement that otherwise would not have occurred.
The columnist doesn’t write for prize money. The profession offers its own reward. The words, the ideas, the information, the reader connection—those matter most, of course. And the quality of a column is not strictly a matter of readership, just as the quality of a teacher’s work is not strictly a matter of test scores compiled by the students.
But, still, carrots were made to dangle. That’s the idea, anyway, and I can accept the hint of effectiveness in it.
Alas, those subjects did not get the superintendents going. What got them going was the so-called Tim Tebow Law, which I, still lingering on the periphery of the liberal and education establishment reservation, endorsed.
It narrowly failed in the recent legislative session. Superintendents reared up against the idea of permitting a home-schooled youth (as Tebow was), if testing at grade level and if parents pay all appropriate fees, to participate with the local public school in organized extra-curricular or competitive activities such as football or band or debate or chorus.
The guiding principle must be the best interests of the child. That’s harder than it sounds. It’s not in a child’s best interest to deny him a chance to shine at the state band meet because of resentment of the parents’ decision to keep him home. It’s not in a child’s best interest to say he can’t cherry-pick if, in fact, cherry-picking would enhance his educational opportunity.
On this point I came away gratified. Superintendents assured me there had been no solidarity among them in opposition to that bill. They said they worried most not about serious home-schoolers, but about these kids who drop out and whose parents don’t have the gumption to get them back in school, but who might want their boy to play football.
The grade-level testing requirement for eligibility ought to take care of that.
Two of the superintendents spoke up to say the following, as others nodded: They actually favor a Tim Tebow Law. If they can lure a home-schooled youth to the school even for one period, they said, then they can win his heart, his mind and his pressure on his folks for full-time enrollment.
Now that’s the spirit. Now that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
John Brummett is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.