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Friday, January 31, 2014

Education director Tom Kimbrell seeks Fayetteville superintendent's job

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 7:38 AM

click to enlarge SEEKS FAYETTEVILLE JOB: State Education Director Tom Kimbrell.
  • SEEKS FAYETTEVILLE JOB: State Education Director Tom Kimbrell.
I'm remiss in not passing on the notice from the Fayetteville School District last night that it would be interviewing Arkansas Education Director Tom Kimbrell about a coming vacancy in its superintendent post.

Reading between the lines of various media accounts it sounds like Kimbrell may have found a new home. He had a good interview last night and more are planned.

Who can blame him? Pay and benefits will be comparable (maybe better). He'd lead a high-performing school district in a city with still-strong progressive roots that has demonstrated a commitment to support for public education both privately and through tax increases.

He leaves a job where he's ultimately responsible for performance in a state that ranges from the most bedraggled and forgotten corners of the old plantation culture to, well, Fayetteville.

Kimbrell has been a classic Beebe appointee, a consensus builder. He's an old school superintendent so he moves easily among the powerful superintendents lobby. He has a sympathy for their situation and understands how the billionaire-funded "reform" movement imperils some schools not always deserving of the peril brought by every-man-for-himself education philosophy. He's led adoption of toughening national standards for Arkansas and we've seen incremental progress. But he also ceded to the overwhelming clout brought to education issues by the billionaires. His department staff is going to approve just about every charter school application, no matter how larded with education double-speak and questionable financial dreams (see the Quest middle school recently approved for upscale Chenal Valley) because that's demanded by the Waltons, Stephenses, Murphys and Hussmans. Certainly in Little Rock.

At the same time, Kimbrell made a genius appointment of an old colleague, Jerry Guess, to be the state trustee of the Pulaski County Special School District. It's digging itself out of a financial hole. It's moving to solve old parochial divisions in the unwieldy doughnut around Pulaski County. Guess has managed to work amicably with just about everyone, including civil rights lawyer John Walker, generally a negative litmus test for big business types.

On balance, I have some concerns about Kimrbell's departure because it could signal a final victory for those who want to tear apart the conventional system of public education. Imagine an Asa Hutchinson victory and further solidification of the Republican majority in the legislature. The Koch-financed Arkansas lobby is already pushing all the billionaires' pet talking points, just to give you some idea.

But I sometimes think my biggest concern is localized: whether a new state education director — who functions by law as the "school board' of the Pulaski County school district — might prompt a change in local leadership. That would be the real shame.

Meanwhile, think on the irony of where Arkansas education is headed. That movement to reduce the number of inefficient school districts that so many fought so hard, including even Mike Huckabee. When the Walton billions finally have their way and caps are ultimately removed, we'll have hundreds of small school districts (euphemistically called charter schools), just like in the old days. (Plus, depending on the reach of GOP hegemony, millions in vouchers to private schools and home schoolers.) Keeping up with all of these new school districts and putting the failures out of business will be a task beyond the abilities of the state. See Academics Plus, a charter renewed repeatedly in Maumelle despite a historic failure to fulfill the promise of its founders to be a haven for at-risk children and despite mediocre test results. It's been, in the main, a white flight school. Of course, state-financed segregation is now viewed as legal in Arkansas, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court declaration of a post-racial America.

I'm somewhat surprised none of the small school districts in Arkansas, forced out of business by the arbitrary 350-student enrollment cap, haven't sued  on a constitutional equal protection basis for being forced out of business while smaller charter schools are allowed to spring up. Somebody call Weiner.

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