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Social media blew up Monday night over Little Rock in outrage at the news of Baker Kurrus’ unceremonious dumping by the Hutchinson administration as superintendent of the city’s public schools.

Suddenly I remembered having written months ago that Kurrus, working by state appointment via the state takeover on account of academic distress, was the “last best hope” for the Little Rock schools.

He was starting the day early, greeting arriving Baseline Elementary students with “holas,” and staying up late stewing over an email blast accusing him of trying to close elementary schools he probably needed to close, but hadn’t decided to close.

Kurrus was uncommonly invested emotionally and energetically in the schools. He could be intense, abrupt and fiery, and friends worried a little about him. He wasn’t getting enough sleep. But his heart was right and his business-trained and Harvard-honed leadership skills were sound. He was oddly ingratiating. He sang a Leon Russell song at a commencement address. He peppered faculty and staff with motivational emails.

So I went back and checked what I wrote. It was in December. And it actually was that I couldn’t say Kurrus was the last best hope. I said it was always possible, no matter how remotely, that someone similarly committed and invested and able would come along after him.

So is that person Michael Poore, who resigned Monday night as Bentonville’s superintendent to replace Kurrus — a dumping executed with a high degree of clumsiness by educational commissioner Johnny Key, who acted with the clumsy acquiescence of Gov. Asa Hutchinson?

Little Rock can either hope so — that Poore is another last best hope — or just give the heck up on its schools.

Not much choice there, is there?

Here was Key’s belated explanation at a news conference Tuesday for his Hutchinson-sanctioned action that infuriated Little Rock and, in so doing, managed maybe for the first time in decades to galvanize Little Rock on something having to do with its public schools:

The first order of business as he became state education director and inherited the Little Rock takeover’s infancy was to fix the district financially and organizationally. He said Kurrus was the right man for that, by personal skill as well as experience on the school board and engagement in state-appointed consulting roles. But that period is over. Kurrus has succeeded. Now it’s time to move to a strict academic emphasis, and Poore, who ran a big and troubled district in Colorado Springs before coming to Bentonville, is the man for that next stage.

There are two very tough issues.

The first is that Little Rock’s schools have been rocked for decades by instability in leadership. So now Key manages to reinforce that instability by ousting a popular local man beginning to show progress and to whom the community was warming.

Even if Kurrus’ initial job was understood to be strictly transitional, a better grade of leadership at the state level might have been reflected in the flexibility to accede to the positive dynamic and not dump him for the next phase, but keep him well into it.

Sometimes leadership is abandoning best-laid plans and adapting to new circumstances.

The second issue is whether this actually is all about Kurrus’ vocal opposition to charter-school proliferation, as well as to Key’s allegiance to business interests who champion charter schools and school choice.

I asked Kurrus on Monday night if he could explain to me how the state intended to restore academic performance in the regular Little Rock schools while approving a mass exodus of students to new and expanded charter schools.

“No sir,” he said.

On one hand, the eStem charter system in Little Rock is producing positive results and has a waiting list of 6,000 students. It is difficult to keep that many children and parents waiting for the same opportunity they see other children getting. So expansion seems compelling.

But on the other hand, it’s difficult to rebuild the regular Little Rock public schools while you erode them.

Some of these business leaders who call themselves education reformers believe the original purpose of charter schools — to show regular public schools new and effective methods — is out-of-date. They have determined that regular public schools are too entrenched and stubborn to change. So they seek universal public charters.

Is that what this man from Bentonville, home to the charter-crazed Walton Foundation, is being dispatched into Little Rock to accomplish?

The signals are mixed. I’m told that Poore most usually does what the business community wants. But I’m also told he has a history of leading regular public schools amid charter competition.

And I also am advised reliably that the Waltons, for example, were as surprised by the Kurrus ouster as anyone.

So the real story of his appointment remains unclear.

Whether Little Rock wanted or felt it needed him — that’s clear.

It didn’t.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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Archived Comments

  • Nodmcm
    April 20, 2016 at 6:46 a.m.

    Ask any Republican, like Gov. Hutchinson or educational commissioner Johnny Key, and they will tell you that "government doesn't work." Of course, "government" includes public schools. So of course, and most unfortunately, it is in their interest to promote the narrative that government-run (public) schools are inferior and a waste of time compared to privately-run, for-profit, charter schools. The ultimate conservative, Republican goal is for everyone to pay for their own children's educations, privately, and NOT TAX people who don't have children. Another conservative goal is to make absolutely certain that teachers are not able to organize into unions, said teachers' unions that support Democrat policies and administrations right down the line. Republicans should be proud of their ideology, and many are, so there should be no argument with my characterization of their positions, which make clear that well-run public schools, competing with their pet-project charter schools, well, they cause cognitive dissonance. Maybe Kurrus got carried away, and was on course to prove that public schools can work, and work well, given the right talent and support. I bet this guy from Bentonville understands Republican, conservative ideology.

  • hah406
    April 20, 2016 at 9:22 a.m.

    Johnny Key has no business being the education commissioner. They had to actually change the law because he was so unqualified for the position. That is usually a signal that you are going to get a bad leader when you have to lower the qualifications to put him in place. What Key is doing is trying to destroy LRSD and put in place a yes man for nothing but charter schools. He should speak up and own it, because his current explanation is full of lies.

  • mozarky2
    April 20, 2016 at 10:36 a.m.

    Well, if we have a charter school system with a 6,000 applicant waiting list, I'd say we need enough charter schools to satisfy that demand. How can anyone argue with that?

  • hah406
    April 20, 2016 at 10:58 a.m.

    That particular charter school, eSTEM, is very successful, and I love the work that they do. And I do believe they deserve the space to expand, and their particular success is why they have a waiting list that long. But there are many other charter schools that do not do nearly as well. Check the state report card and you will find several charter's with a grade of "D" or "F". The answer is in finding a balance, not further gutting LRSD.

  • Torquodal
    April 20, 2016 at 11:09 a.m.

    Trust, but verify. I don't believe all 6000 on their waiting list still need to be on the list. I'd rather see how many have applied in the last 6 to 12 months and what schools they are trying to transfer from.

  • mozarky2
    April 20, 2016 at 11:55 a.m.

    Well, unlike most of the "illiberals" on this forum, I believe in a woman's right to choose. Especially where she chooses to send her child to school.

  • mozarky2
    April 20, 2016 at 11:58 a.m.

    If a charter has a grade of D or F, shut it down, and fire the entire staff. Do the same to any public school in the same circumstances.

  • 3WorldState1
    April 20, 2016 at 12:24 p.m.

    Easier said than done. Close them down and replace with what? How do you get new qualified applicants when the starting salary is like 25k and you have to put up with the crap teachers do? TX starts 10k more for new teachers. Society can no longer hope that enough woman feel obligated or have that "pull" to help children. Their college was too expensive. Health care too expensive. Everything is expensive and there is not enough married woman that want to "give back" to their community. They have to put food on the table and save for their children's future. I wanted to teach...decided I couldn't afford a family if I did. Went another direction. You typically get what you pay for.

  • Packman
    April 20, 2016 at 12:39 p.m.

    Let's say there's a gain of truth in Key's statement regarding the timing of the change and it really is time to move from financial stability to academic success. Er, uh, ........... OK, I tried to find that grain of truth and it's just not there. Baker Kurrus is a smart business man. As such, he would be smart enough to hire top-level educators and let them take care of the academic success end of the business. Key's statement is just more BULLSH*T.

  • mozarky2
    April 20, 2016 at 1:35 p.m.

    Y'know, hah, it's a mystery to me why LR has D and F charters. Here in Benton County (highest per capita income in the state, BTW) there are no such thing. Can't blame it on lack of diversity, since we are far more diverse here than LR...

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