Friday, April 22, 2016

Walton U. does its duty in LR school mess

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2016 at 10:39 AM

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State Education Commissioner Johnny Key fired Baker Kurrus as Little Rock superintendent effective July 1 because he ventured too far off the reservation when he presented impressive data to the state Board of Education on the damaging impact of charter schools on the district. Kurrus was questioning major expansion of two relatively undistinguished charter schools already draining easier-to-educate children from LRSD.

Key said he got no orders from the Walton Family Foundation to do this. He needed no orders. After years of carrying and advocating for their legislation and broader school agenda, including support for their 2015 bill to allow privatization of the entire Little Rock School District, he hardly needed a consultation when Kurrus went rogue.

Into the breach to defend the action came employees of the units at the University of Arkansas, established through Walton millions and including salaries enriched by Walton contributions. This, by the way, is more than a single-shot issue. Some universities resist taking gifts tied to establishment of educational units that represent givers' pet interests precisely because of the appearance of conflict of interest. It is worth a huge sum to have the imprimatur of a public research institution placed on essentially political opinions. As we saw this week.

I wrote before about the instant emergence of a blog post from the Office of Education Policy at UA defending the sacking of Kurrus and extolling the choice of Bentonville superintendent Michael Poore to succeed him. (Here's a direct link to that post.) But because of the continued unhappiness in Little Rock — and the growing understanding here that the Walton education agenda is now guiding the Little Rock School District — the Walton's hands at UA had to do more.

So came Gary Ritter and Sarah McKenzie of the Walton-backed Office of Education Policy at UA to write an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today further  defending the Little Rock putsch. It's no more than political editorializing, a funny thing for an outfit hoping to maintain credentials as an impartial research tool. Some of its premise is based — wait for it — on an unsubstantiated tweet and a single line in a newspaper column. It was good enough for these academics to refute the abundant, specific evidence of Key's advocacy for specific steps and legislation carrying out Walton preferences. Good enough to override the obvious — Key's department's support of expanded damaging charter schools on no showing they fill an unmet need or offer innovation not available in the real public schools.

Imagine: A tweet is evidence! No conspiracy to see here.

There is no need to conspire or issue direct orders when you have someone well-versed in what important influencers like the Waltons expect. Those influencers include, by the way, the pro-charter publisher of the newspaper that published this remarkable piece, Walter Hussman. He's never met a charter school he didn't like and he's in Gov. Asa Hutchinson's inner circle on education issues. Hutchinson, of course, appointed Johnny Key. To quote myself: I am reliably informed this had something to do with this week's events.

Be not dismayed, Ritter and McKenzie suggest. Heck, a tweet from John Brummett says Michael Poore might be a left-winger. To which I reply: 1) It's irrelevant to the subject under discussion. 2) No evidence to that effect has been provided, except the contrary evidence of Poore's opposition to an LGBT non-discrimination policy for his current school district.

Poore's lack of experience with a school district with any significant number of black students is brushed over by Ritter and McKenzie for his experience in a heavily "minority" district. They don't tell you it was a small district with a large Latino population in Colorado, not exactly  Little Rock. 

The obvious flaw is the failure to report the Walton millions that undergird everything that comes out of the writers' corner of the university. Ritter, in e-mail exchanges with me on this subject, says he's his own man and has tenure and writes what he thinks unafraid of consequences. I agree that  his work demonstrates a sincere effort to lift needy children. But his Walmart skirt shows in e-mails with me when he wonders whether it is only the "elites" unhappy about Kurrus and only the parents in magnet schools who care. (He says he only wants to know how others feel.) Unlike some others, I've been in the schools, magnet and others, both as parent and mentor. I know Mabelvale and Henderson, to name two schools outperforming the vaunted  charter schools, are not magnet and not composed by "elites" as defined by those who employ the word to demonize their critics. Ritter questions whether lower income parents are upset. I invited him to attend a meeting of Arkansa Community Organizations, one of the groups angered by Kurrus' dismissal, and do a head count there on elites.

Ritter and McKenzie also want you to think this is about Poore, about whom very little has been said. (He dodged an interview with KATV yesterday, an indication the powers-that-be hope to keep it that way for a while.) I hope he's a good educator. But I'm sorry that a year of stability and demonstrated positive work has been upended by yet another leadership turnover.

Ritter downplayed progress in test scores in Little Rock as happening before Kurrus took over. True. It would be a hilarious for anyone to use this as a defense (whether Ritter intends this or not) if it wasn't so infuriating. As I've written before, the improvement happened under that bad old school board that the state evicted so Johnny Key could be put in charge. Still, the continuing signs have been positive. Kurrus didn't get benefit of even a single full year to show what his  herculean work had accomplished.

I've said enough. But I do want to demonstrate the factual acumen of the Office of Education Policy.

Wednesday, they proclaimed (above) on their weird propaganda blog post that Baker Kurrus was not fired. Below is a headline from an article in today's Democrat-Gazette about a protest of Kurrus' firing at noon Saturday at the state Capitol. If you can't believe a line in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, what can you believe?

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