Having mustered all the driving skills of a country mouse in the big city for nearby parallel parking, I walked into Mugs on Little Rock's Kavanaugh Boulevard, wondering if the guy I was meeting would look anything like the pictures I'd seen on the Internet. And if not, if he would have a clue what I looked like, and if not, how we would find each other.
I need not have been concerned. It was instant recognition for both of us. Probably because I tend to exude Ozark Hillbilly chic when I walk into a room, a contrast to the urbane Pulaski Heights environment. And he looked exactly like the pictures I'd seen in my research: refined. Also friendly, he rose to greet me as soon as I darkened the door.
I shook his hand with my usual gorilla grip--my dad's description--and hoped later I hadn't hurt him, when he casually mentioned that stuffing hundreds of pudding snacks in food bags for children at a foodbank had made his hands sore.
We ordered coffees and I got yogurt and fruit, since places like Mugs don't serve biscuits and gravy. We sat at a corner table. Surely we exchanged pleasantries, but I don't remember anything about our conversation that felt shallow. I loved that, since my personality is one disinclined to entertain much small talk. My impression of this guy is that he's just too smart, and thinks too deeply about everything, to engage in much of it either.
Baker Kurrus was introduced to me over text by a mutual friend who described him thus: "I've known Baker for about 30 years and consider him to be among the finest people I've ever met, in every respect (intellect, values, legal-business acumen, great company, etc.). You will enjoy getting to know him."
Since I regard this friend as one who also fits such a description, I wanted to meet Mr. Kurrus. And I really wanted to pick his brain about education.
There was an unusually large amount of brain to be picked. This impressed me. But what endeared me--and had me wondering by the end of the conversation why this person is not being utilized in some upper echelon of our state or federal government--was his heart.
One can get an idea of what I'm talking about by googling "Baker Kurrus education." Things like "Straight Talk," his blog on the Little Rock School District website, comes up to provide a free lesson in servant-leadership. Appreciation of his legacy there, as well as thoughts on his mayoral race, populate from this paper.
Most insightful of all, however, is a PDF for anyone in the world to see called "Comments to the State Board of Education and the Arkansas Department of Education," a document Kurrus submitted Aug. 3, 2019.
Reading this document, for a person who cares about education and how to fix our myriad problems, is like hitting the mother lode. It is absolutely the most brilliant assessment I can imagine of the issues facing schools in Arkansas, as well as data-driven solutions for how to deal with them.
That is not hyperbole, nor is it an uninformed opinion. In addition to living it as a teacher and parent, I've been studying this stuff for years while working on my Ed.S. I've never seen--or come up with anything--close.
I'd heard of Kurrus, his work at LRSD, and the weird way he was dismissed after being hand-picked by the state to run the district. He's a fascinating character to many school people I know, because in our perception he came in as a government lackey--the bureaucrats' chosen savior of the so-called failing Little Rock Schools.
He was an attorney and businessman, not an educator, just like so many others in Little Rock who think they know what we should be doing without stepping even one toe into our shoes.
Which I am now ashamed of ever thinking. Because after he served 14 months as the district superintendent, Kurrus' sympathy came down on the side of the people in the trenches for the so-called failing schools: teachers, parents, and children. Not the government. And certainly not the government's desire to expand charters, further alienating students, teachers, and parents who already struggle to make educational ends meet.
Here's one nugget from Kurrus' comments: "Promptly craft a plan to move toward a single, locally controlled unitary system in Little Rock which does not segregate, isolate and stigmatize students of greatest need. There are practical, cooperative things that could be done ..."
Then he sets forth those things in language that is not difficult to understand. Things that would only be too hard to implement for those without the political will. Which seems to be the problem.
It is not politically expedient for some to focus resources on the least of these. How ironic that most of those politicians who stand to lose the most campaign support from doing so are also the loudest to proclaim other biblical directives when it forwards their corporate backers' agenda.
I cannot stop from quoting Kurrus further, because I am so inspired by his words. They read like those of Dale Bumpers, MLK, and more recently Volodymyr Zelenskyy--the rare gems among us who are more public servant than politician, more imitator of Christ than Pharisee.
Here's his conclusion:
"The desire of some for 'school choice' can never overcome the state and federal constitutional requirements for a free, efficient unitary system of public education. A community cannot thrive without a unitary system which meets the needs and serves the purposes of all, especially those persons of greatest need.
"Separate but equal systems do not pass constitutional muster. Systems which segregate, isolate and stigmatize students in protected classes are unsustainable as a matter of law. Furthermore, such a punitive arrangement is abominable.
"Policies which place the greatest challenges on one district, and allow other districts to operate without service to all, are unfair. It is possible to build morale and improve performance, but only by using tools which are based on mutual respect. I do not fear over-zealous advocacy nearly as much as I fear apathy and resignation. I believe you could set a different standard through empathy and understanding, especially in light of the humbling experience of operating the so-called failing schools.
"You will need to carefully cultivate and channel the energy for positive change which exists in Little Rock. It can be done. I know that in a deep and personal way. It is time we start the construction of a unitary system which serves all, and focuses special energy and resources on those persons of greatest need. I think the answer will lie in building community-based, diverse student bodies which can be energized by educators who are fully supported."
Readers may wonder why, as a rural educator, I'm giving such space to the evolving politics of Little Rock schools. One reason is that I care, as every Arkansan should, about Little Rock's children. They are our children. But my current fixation on Kurrus' insights about that school district is because the principles he asserts can be applied to all schools in our state, urban or rural. And should. He has shown Arkansas the way to climb out of our spot at the bottom of the bucket in education.
I call on all lawmakers to read it. Same goes for aspiring politicians. A candidate who makes a commercial in which she promises, when she is governor, to "educate kids, not indoctrinate them with the left's agenda" and to "empower parents, not bureaucrats" should make us wonder who has been in charge of this state in recent history.
Who ignored the suggestions of their own appointed lawyer/businessman/superintendent Kurrus who, at their request, used his considerable gifts in service of our schoolchildren?
A super-majority of that candidate's own allies has dictated Arkansas educational policy for the last several years. Are those bureaucrats--of which she is running to be chief--the ones we are supposed to believe she'll wrest power from? Are they the same ones indoctrinating kids with the left's agenda?
Why can we not get real? I suspect it's the same reason Baker Kurrus' analysis and solutions to empower families were ignored by bureaucrats when he offered them. Like Ukraine before Zelenskyy, Arkansas is under the influence of oligarch types who put their political interests over the interests of the people.
It takes a lot of courage, hard work, and a unified sense of purpose among many different groups of people, to overcome that. But I believe we can. And we will.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at email@example.com.