Sunday, April 24, 2016

Did the rally for Little Rock schools matter? It did, and here's why.

Posted By on Sun, Apr 24, 2016 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge AT THE CAPITOL: The rally for Little Rock schools drew hundreds on short notice. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • AT THE CAPITOL: The rally for Little Rock schools drew hundreds on short notice.

I'd estimate that yesterday's rally at the Capitol in opposition to the firing of Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus drew a crowd of around 600 people. The speakers represented divergent viewpoints regarding Little Rock's schools, from John Riggs, a businessman and former Democratic legislator who advocated for state takeover of the LRSD last year, to local education activist and takeover opponent Tony Orr. The typically hypercautious Mayor Mark Stodola said he considered the firing "a tragedy." Little Rock Education Association head Cathy Koehler told the crowd that the teachers' union had "a better working relationship with Baker Kurrus than any superintendent in 22 years." (The Arkansas Public Policy Panel organized the event.)

Democratic Sens. Linda Chesterfield and Joyce Elliott of Little Rock rallied the crowd at the end of the event. Chesterfield admitted she'd had her doubts about Kurrus' appointment last summer, considering his lack of traditional education credentials. But, she said, "I'm so glad I was wrong," as Kurrus proved himself to be "about this community," and "reached out to everybody — not just those north of I-630." Elliott said Kurrus' firing was the equivalent of a mugging. "I'm not taking it. I'm just at a point where I'm not taking it lying down," she declared.

Elliott also pointed out the diverse crowd's unity around the issue of Kurrus, a rare thing in Little Rock public education. "We are all one color today," she said. "The color of change." 

Yes, everyone was united yesterday in decrying Education Commissioner Johnny Key's unilateral action forcing Kurrus out of the job. The question is whether it makes any difference. Key said on Friday that he stands by his decision to swap in a new superintendent, Michael Poore of Bentonville (even as the education commissioner ineffectually apologized for the "timing" of the announcement). Key answers directly to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has indicated he knew the firing was coming and said it won't be reversed. And there the chain of command stops. Because the LRSD was taken over by the state Education Department in January 2015, Key and (indirectly) Hutchinson would seem to hold almost all the cards. If this deal is done, why bother making any noise about it?

Actually, those opposed to the decision need to keep doing just that. Even if Kurrus is out for good as superintendent, the fight over the direction of Little Rock schools continues — and the coming days are crucial ones in which public pressure matters more than ever. Here are four reasons why.

1. The real issue isn't Kurrus. It's what the education reformists plan to do next in the LRSD.

click to enlarge A protestor last spring at the Capitol opposing the school privatization bill.
  • A protestor last spring at the Capitol opposing the school privatization bill.
To grasp why Kurrus' firing really matters in terms of the well-being of the children in the district, go back and read about HB 1733. That's the failed 2015 bill that would have allowed for the systematic privatization of the Little Rock School District by farming its schools out to charter management organizations. The bill is also Exhibit A in the argument that billionaire charter supporter Jim Walton is playing some role (however obliquely) in big picture decision-making about the LRSD: It is widely known that HB 1733, which was aimed directly at Little Rock, originated with a Walton-affiliated education lobbyist.

Ultimately, this is what public school advocates fear is coming: The destruction of the LRSD, either slowly (if proliferating charters keep drawing more middle-income families away from the district) or rapidly (if legislation like HB 1733 does come to pass and the district is actively dismantled). Kurrus spoke out against the proposed expansion of two charter schools with surprising boldness, arguing that the plans forwarded by eStem and LISA Academy would harm the LRSD and its children. I'll let his arguments speak for themselves, but it is widely presumed that his outspokenness on the issue caused Key — a supporter of charter schools — to deem him unsuitable. (Key denies this; his official explanation is that Kurrus was a fantastic school leader, but he found an even better one in Michael Poore.)

But it's important to remember that Kurrus as superintendent couldn't have stopped a resurrected HB 1733 in the 2017 legislature any more than he was able to stop the eStem and LISA expansions when they appeared before the charter-sympathetic state Board of Education last month. All he could do was use the megaphone provided by his position and his stature in the community — the latter of which is only enhanced by the sense of quasi-martyrdom this firing has engendered.

What stopped HB 1733 last spring was a combination of community outcry and behind-the-scenes lobbying by education interest groups that hold powerful sway with legislators. The representative who sponsored the bill, Rep. Bruce Cazort (R-Hot Springs), himself backed away from the legislation and pulled it from the education committee without a vote. (Note that Kurrus wasn't yet in the superintendent's chair when HB 1733 appeared, and when it was defeated.)

In other words, in terms of actual power, the direction of the district is as much in the people's hands as it has been at any point since January 2015 when the LRSD's elected school board was dissolved. Local democracy was effectively suspended with the state takeover, but public pressure still matters in shaping the decisions of the powers-that-be.

click to enlarge Gov. Hutchinson - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Gov. Hutchinson

2. The governor is listening, believe it or not.

About 15 months into Asa Hutchinson's governorship, we have a fair sense of how he operates. He likes stability and order. He likes steady, incremental progress toward his conservative agenda. Ever the consummately cautious prosecutor, he prefers arguing his case when he stands on firm rhetorical ground and wants differences to be resolved through discreet negotiations rather than messy public standoffs. He loves a good task force.

I have no firsthand knowledge of the governor's mood on this or any other topic, but the rumor at the Capitol is that he's not happy about how explosive Kurrus' firing has proved to be among a broad section of Little Rock. (How, you ask, could Hutchinson not have seen this coming? That I can't answer.)

Hutchinson probably isn't going to reverse course on the Kurrus decision, but it's clear he's devoting time and energy into trying to manage the fallout. He's met with city directors and the mayor.  According to John Riggs, the governor has spoken to business leaders from Little Rock who know Kurrus well and are upset with his dismissal. He also met with Little Rock legislators last week. 

To be clear, paying attention to leaders in the state's largest city isn't some praiseworthy move on Hutchinson's part. It's his job, and it would be politically foolish for him to do otherwise. The point is that — as incredibly tone-deaf as the Kurrus firing may have been — Hutchinson is surely keeping an eye on the public mood. Even if Arkansas's political center of gravity has shifted northwestward under his administration, the governor lives in Little Rock. He can't afford to turn a completely blind eye to the city. And given how much Hutchinson likes his politics to be well-ordered, I would imagine the volley of calls and letters and emails his office has been receiving aren't going unnoticed. 

click to enlarge SEN. LINDA CHESTERFIELD: Told the crowd Kurrus brought the community together. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • SEN. LINDA CHESTERFIELD: Told the crowd Kurrus brought the community together.

3. The relative unity around this issue is a rare thing and provides a unique opportunity.

A friend asked me a very good question earlier this week: "Why are people so upset about this guy being fired? Weren't they were mad about him being hired in the first place?"

Yes, some were — and confusingly, those positions aren't really inconsistent. 

Sens. Chesterfield and Elliott were among those who objected to Kurrus being chosen for the post originally, in large part because of the process: As with his firing, the news of his hiring dropped like a bomb, with no attempt to solicit community input. Also, because Kurrus lacked any academic background in education, which is normally a requirement for superintendents, his hiring required a waiver of statute by the state Board of Education.

For many of those skeptical of Kurrus, it was his willingness to take on the eStem and LISA charter school expansions that proved he was indeed acting in good faith and wasn't simply following marching orders from the charter-happy education commissioner. Over his 10 months in the office, he's built trust slowly and steadily and has mostly kept a lid on strife, a monumental accomplishment given how rancorous Little Rock school politics can be. The thing that Kurrus brought to the table — the unique and perhaps irreplaceable thing — was his ability to shrewdly broker the complex transactional politics at the heart of the district, informed by a lifetime in Little Rock and 12 years on the school board.

Yet some of Kurrus' decisions have been controversial — most prominently, a renegotiated teachers' contract that was accepted by the LREA leadership but angered some rank-and-file members, and a planned West Little Rock middle school campus that Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) and other advocates of disadvantaged students say indicates a prioritization of the affluent above the needy. The disagreement within the district on substantive issues is real. Even more contentious decisions were coming down the pike, including likely school closures in the 2017-18 school year.

Ironically, Kurrus' firing may have rallied the community together in a way that he couldn't fully accomplish while being superintendent. Don't get me wrong — such solidarity wouldn't be occurring now if Kurrus hadn't done all the right things as district leader. The reaction we're seeing now is the result of 10 months of decisive action, good faith and proactive trust building on his part. But the fact that Kurrus evidently is being removed for vocally defending the district gives him new credibility among even those LRSD advocates inclined to be suspicious of his motives all along. 
(Strike Kurrus down, and perhaps he becomes more powerful than anyone imagined. At least in the court of public opinion.)

This is important because it provides the opportunity, however tenuous, to establish a coherent agenda for a broad coalition of district advocates moving forward. Opposition to privatization is only one example. There's also the construction of a new high school for under-resourced Southwest Little Rock; Key has said Kurrus' plans for that new campus will continue apace, and the public needs to hold the new superintendent accountable to Key's pledge. Teachers and staff who've already willingly made a number of concessions to Kurrus in the name of detente (sacrificing two paid days of work to ease budget pressures, for example) shouldn't be forced capriciously into giving up even more. If underpopulated school buildings need to be closed in order to conform to the city's westward population shift, that must be done with maximum transparency and minimum disruption to students and families. No matter who's superintendent, keeping up public pressure is essential for these and many other issues.

But maybe the most important is a return to local control of the district. This gets complicated: Kurrus, remember, would never have been superintendent if the state hadn't taken over the LRSD. He was appointed by Key just as unilaterally as he was removed. I don't know how Kurrus felt about the state takeover to begin with, but I recall he didn't speak out against it publicly back in January 2015. Setting aside arguments about the merits of the takeover, let's just recognize that there were many who supported the takeover (like John Riggs) who are dismayed that Kurrus is gone — just as there were those (like John Walker) who fought the takeover tooth and nail but aren't huge fans of Kurrus. (I might also note the racial divide at work here. When the state Board of Education dissolved a majority African-American school board, including two members elected just months before on promises of delivering greater equity to the district, most of the anguish came from the city's black community. It seems to me that that same sense of impotence and disfranchisement didn't fully hit home among a large swath of the white community in Little Rock until Kurrus was fired last week.)

Kurrus' firing has papered over those differences for the moment. Whatever his thoughts on the takeover initially, as the superintendent recently fought his losing battle against the eStem and LISA expansions, he suggested a return to local control sooner rather than later. At a press conference last week with Key, the superintendent told reporters that he thought "there's a good question about the relative [academic] distress" of the LRSD when its latest test scores are compared to those of its "peers," meaning nearby districts and charter schools. The district was taken over by the state because six schools out of 48 were deemed to be in "academic distress," meaning under half of its students performed proficient or advanced on standardized tests. But Kurrus said he thought Little Rock wouldn't remain in academic distress (and thus under state control) for the full five years allowed under state law.

It remains to be seen whether Kurrus' firing could prompt a groundswell of support for expediting a return of local governance. But it's a possibility.

click to enlarge PROTEST: Is anyone listening? Maybe more than you think. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • PROTEST: Is anyone listening? Maybe more than you think.

4. There's still a federal lawsuit at play.

The wild card in all of this is the three-pronged federal lawsuit brought by Rep. John Walker currently before U.S. District Judge Price Marshall. At its heart is an equal protection claim alleging racially discriminatory motives on behalf of the state Education Department and the state board. Walker's suit aims to (1) halt the construction of the planned West Little Rock middle school, (2) stop the expansion of charter schools in Little Rock and (3) reverse the state takeover of the LRSD, thus reinstating the local school board. 

The first prong has been adjudicated already. Marshall last month ruled that the WLR school can proceed as planned. Note that this portion of the suit also pitted Walker directly against Kurrus, illustrating the complex fault lines at play in the district. However, the other two prongs have yet to be heard by Judge Marshall.

Of course, a judge can't be lobbied by the public. But the question of whether an action is discriminatory must take into account the context of the community in which it occurs. In ruling on the state's decision to take over the Little Rock schools, it would seem appropriate for the court to consider the popular legitimacy of the leadership appointed by the state ... or its lack thereof. Moreover, in the two-day hearing over the new WLR campus in March, Marshall indicated his confidence in Kurrus specifically. 

"Mr. Walker is right about there being a public interest in having an equal education for all children," Judge Marshall said at the time, "but this city and this school district need renovation, and need a new birth, if you will, and I must say that I am hopeful after hearing what has been said here in the court these past few days, that that is a prospect under Mr. Kurrus’ leadership."

The question before Marshall in the coming months isn't whether Baker Kurrus should be reinstated as state-appointed superintendent. That's not the judge's call. The questions Marshall faces are whether the state should be in charge of Little Rock's schools at all, and whether charter school expansions (which require approval by the state) have a segregative effect on public education in Little Rock. 

Before Kurrus was fired, those questions seemed somewhat distinct. Now they appear inextricably entwined. I can't help but wonder how the court will feel about Kurrus' abrupt removal — especially considering his firing occurred so soon after he presented information to the state Board of Education alleging charter schools do tend to have a de facto segregative effect.

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