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Welcome to the Arkansas Department of Education, where inequity, ideology and incompetence are our specialties — but trust us with your kids.
Who would have thought Johnny Key, Gov. Hutchinson's man running the Department of Education, would become the poster child of big government incompetence?
Say this about Key: He believes. He believes so much in the Walton agenda to privatize schools that he is sacrificing nearly every other principle to get there. So Baker Kurrus was fired for doing his job and advocating for the 25,000 students in the Little Rock School District.
The system is rigged. Some people screamed this from the get-go with the state takeover of LRSD and elimination of our newly elected African-American majority school board with a reform agenda. The governor and Key's advocacy for proposed legislation allowing the state to give control of LRSD to a private corporation further eroded confidence. But many others couldn't believe it yet. I played along, upset by the takeover, but willing to work to try to make it a success.
The ADE board ruling to approve the eStem and LISA charter expansions shook the public's confidence even more. Kurrus presented overwhelming data showing eStem and LISA expansions will harm the vast majority of Little Rock's children. The charters countered with a string of cute kids offering anecdotes. The board that said it wanted to make a data-driven decision did precisely the opposite.
Commissioner Key slammed the door last week on any remaining illusion of fairness by firing Kurrus for having the integrity and gall to challenge the desires of the great Walton machine. Kurrus stood up for kids. In particular he stood up for low-income, special needs and minority kids who the ADE is actively working to segregate and leave behind.
Commissioner Key, by firing Kurrus, boiled the whole LRSD takeover into one word: rigged. Key can try to explain and aw shucks the decision away, or try to "press release" it to death, but it fails the most basic eyeball test. Kurrus beat the state at its own game, so it declared victory and kicked him off the field. You can be sure of the chill sent across our state — get in line or you are next.
Then Key introduced Little Rock to our new superintendent Michael Poore, a yes man who can't seem to state his position on the controversies that have rocked our schools. Poore walks in the door tainted. He has no legitimacy on which to showcase his "leadership skills." It's hard to see how such a "leader" could not see this is a situation to run from, not embrace.
The incompetence of the Hutchinson administration's attempt to smooth talk this is staggering. Everything about this disaster has been mishandled: the firing and the hiring, the bumbling announcements, the vacuous and uncomfortable news conferences and the disingenuous attempt to say this is about academic and leadership skills. Key, who needed waivers from academic requirements to be hired, touted Poore's academic credentials as the reason for the change.
Rigging a system as Key has done corrodes the credibility of the whole institution of public education. If the state can rig the system against Little Rock kids then it can rig the system against any child. No one in Arkansas can see the Department of Education as a credible, unbiased agent for education anymore.
Incompetence is like a cancer in an organization. It spreads from any position out, but the higher it goes the faster it spreads. The commissioner of education being so clearly in over his head infects the entire department. Good people flee or give up. Performance drops across the whole organization.
The governor needs to put an end to this madness and make Little Rock whole again. This bumbling mess has already done far too much damage to our kids and community. It's time to get back to proven reforms — pre-K, reading, after-school and nutrition programs — and away from an ideological experiment that has already left other cities in ruin.
The governor needs to reconsider the leadership of ADE. He needs to freeze charter school expansion until we have a plan that considers the full impact on our community. He needs to freeze the state takeover of more school districts, and he needs to give local control back to someone with our students' best interests in mind: Little Rock's elected school board.
Anyone who thinks this is going to blow over is not paying attention.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.