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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Focus on Little Rock schools

by John Brummett | October 13, 2020 at 4:02 a.m.

Avert your eyes from the presidential disgrace. If you live in Little Rock, contemplate instead something more within your direct control.

I refer to the election Nov. 3 of the nine members of a restored school board exercising at least limited authority over the local public schools.

After more than five years of a takeover that has produced only spotty successes, state government is ceding incremental authority.

Still, the state declares some power off-limits to the new board and asserts the right to re-seize full control at any time.

One of the school board candidates, Jeff Wood in Zone 9 in far northwest Little Rock, has been chairman of the state-permitted but powerless local community advisory board. That's made him a partner in state control.

He has pushed back on widespread local allegations of bad faith against the Hutchinson administration. He's made the correct points that state control was invoked by Mike Beebe appointees to the state Board of Education, and that the dysfunction and failure of the local board were rampantly evident at that time.

But it was the Hutchinson-Johnny Key regime that fired the rapidly successful Baker Kurrus as the state-installed superintendent. It did so because Kurrus dared to say that the state ought to curb charter-school expansions while it was assigning itself concurrently the ostensible job of restoring traditional public education.

It's the Asa and Johnny regime that has kept the knee on the neck for too long now.

Along the way they revealed that what they seemed to want most of all was to kill the Little Rock teacher union, on the basis that underpaid, overworked teachers shouldn't advocate as a group that could exert leverage over school policy. That's apparently all right for the police, but not teachers, in the conservative think-tank world.

If traditional public education in Little Rock is to stand a chance, then it will need for some of the smart, educated, dedicated, credentialed, vigorous, activist young parents who have long been demonstrating their commitment to traditional and locally controlled public schools to take elected seats on the new school board.

Fortunately, some of those people are running. This is not an exclusive or exhaustive list, but it's a good one, offered more for extolling than the audacity of endorsement:

• Ali Noland, a smart and tireless lawyer, writer and young mom living in Hillcrest and running in Zone 5 in midtown, who has risen more than once at public meetings in the last couple of years to agree with those resentful of the state but to try to lower the conversation's destructive temperature. She's precisely what the moment demands.

• Vicki Hatter, a young mother of two who once stood beside Noland outside the governor's office seeking to be heard, and who is running from the Baptist Medical Center area in Zone 6.

• Ryan Davis, a young parent of three, pastor and director of the UALR Children's International program, as well as a board member of both the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, who is running from downtown in Zone 7 as one of the leading advocates of new "community schools" serving a wide array of services.

• Dr. Kieng P. "Bao" Vang-Dings, a research scientist and young mother of two who has helped develop science curriculum and is running with a strong academics focus from the city's western edge in Zone 9 against the aforementioned Wood, a highly impressive and engaged young parent himself whose staunchest advocacy is improved reading skills and otherwise champions a new high school in northwest Little Rock to bring those youngsters back to the public schools.

But I can't properly include Wood among local control champions because that's not what he's been.

If Little Rock could get at least a couple or three of those persons elected to the board to join the calmly progressive former board president, Greg Adams, who runs in Zone 8, then ability, competence, passion, vigor, diversity and devoted parental investment would be vitally and ably represented.

Months ago, when the new board zones and the election were announced, the concern among public-school advocates was that wealthy Walton Foundation allies supporting charter proliferation and anti-union efforts would run well-funded candidates.

That does not yet appear to be the case. The only possible signal--and it's but a faint peripheral one--would be the endorsement on Sunday of a few candidates by this newspaper's editorial page, which has shared some of those advocacies for school choice and against teacher-union influence.

You will notice that none of the candidacies endorsed there were on the list extolled here.

That shows how a good newspaper presents differing opinions if its publisher allows them through an admirable commitment to public debate. And it helps show voters what the choices are.

Perhaps everyone could agree that the field provides the makings of a school board that could do some much-needed good.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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