State Education Commissioner Johnny Key fired Baker Kurrus as Little Rock superintendent last week because he ventured off the reservation when he presented data to the state Board of Education on the damaging impact of charter schools on the district, which the state now runs. Kurrus was questioning proposed expansions of two charter schools already draining easier-to-educate children from the LRSD.
Key said he got no orders from the Walton Family Foundation to do this. He needed no orders. After years of carrying their legislation, including support for their 2015 bill to allow privatization of the entire Little Rock School District, he hardly needed to gauge their unhappiness when Kurrus went rogue.
When howls of anger erupted at the firing, Walton apologists were at the ready. They came from the school "reform" program at the University of Arkansas, its existence and subsidized salaries owed to Walton millions. Some universities resist taking gifts tied to educational units to avoid such appearances of conflict of interest. Not UAF.
First came a blog post from the Walton-backed Office of Education Policy at UA defending the sacking of Kurrus and extolling the choice of Bentonville superintendent Michael Poore to succeed him. Then Gary Ritter and Sarah McKenzie of the office cranked out an op-ed for Saturday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette further defending Kurrus' ouster. It was research-deficient editorializing, a funny thing for an outfit hoping to maintain academic credentials. It lacked heft against the abundant, specific evidence of Key's long advocacy for Walton education wishes or the decision of Key's department to further batter the Little Rock district with charter school expansions that demonstrated no evidence they'd fill an unmet need or exceed what public schools were doing. The latest school report cards were full of numerical scores that showed Little Rock excellence against the eStem, LISA and KIPP schools so often invoked by charter advocates such as Walter Hussman, publisher of, coincidentally, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
For solace, Ritter and McKenzie pointed to a tweet from a Democrat-Gazette columnist that said Michael Poore might be a left-winger. So what? But, since he mentioned it: Poore's primary philosophical record is opposition to an LGBT non-discrimination policy for the Bentonville School District. Some lefty.
Poore's lack of experience with a school district with any significant number of black students was brushed over by Ritter and McKenzie for his experience in a heavily "minority" district. They didn't mention it was a small district with a large Latino population in Colorado. Nor did they mention a mixed bag of standardized test scores in Bentonville, including a decline in graduation rate of poor students over the last five years.
The obvious flaw in the op-ed was its failure to mention the Walton influence behind the writers' employer. Ritter, in e-mail exchanges with me, said he's his own man. His work demonstrates an effort to lift needy children. But his Walmart skirt shows when he wonders whether it is only the "elites" or parents of magnet schoolers unhappy about Kurrus. Only a few meaningless liberals care, in other words.
I've been in the schools. I know Mabelvale and Henderson — to name two schools outperforming the expanded charter schools — are not magnet schools and not populated by "elites" as defined by those who use the word to demonize critics. I also suggest that Ritter attend a meeting of Arkansas Community Organizations, one of the groups angered by Kurrus' dismissal, and do a head count there on elites.
Ritter and McKenzie also tried to make the public think the outcry was an unfair attack on Poore, about whom very little has been said. Poore dodged an interview with KATV, making himself available so far only to the friendly Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which missed a chance to ask him probing questions. I hope he's a good educator, but after a year of stable leadership it's a shame that Little Rock must start all over again.
Ritter downplayed recently released progress in test scores in Little Rock as happening before Kurrus took over. True, but it is both hilarious and infuriating to hear it used as a defense. 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 even a single full year to show what his herculean work has accomplished.
But 600 people – some not so elite -- gathered at the Capitol last Saturday to show they appreciated Baker Kurrus. They will not soon be quiet.