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Standing up for the LRSD

Kurrus may be out as superintendent, but fight for the district continues.


SPEAKING UP: Activist Toney Orr addresses the crowd at the Capitol on Saturday, April 23. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • SPEAKING UP: Activist Toney Orr addresses the crowd at the Capitol on Saturday, April 23.

Last Saturday's rally at the Capitol, organized by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, drew an estimated 600 people opposed to the firing of Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus. 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 usually hyper-cautious 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."

Democratic Sens. Linda Chesterfield and Joyce Elliott of Little Rock rallied the crowd at the end of the protest. Chesterfield admitted she'd had her doubts about Kurrus' appointment last summer. 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 just at a point where I'm not taking it lying down," she declared.

Elliott also pointed out the sentiment of relative unity around the issue of Kurrus, an elusive thing in Little Rock public education. "We are all one color today," she said. "The color of change."

Yes, almost everyone was united last weekend in decrying Education Commissioner Johnny Key's unilateral action forcing Kurrus out of the job. The question is whether it makes any difference. The day before the rally, Key said that he stands by his decision to hire 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. Because the LRSD was taken over by the state Education Department in January 2015, Key and 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, 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 education "reform" advocates plan to do next.

To grasp why Kurrus' firing really matters in terms of the well-being of the children in the district, recall HB 1733. That's the failed 2015 bill that would have allowed for the systematic privatization of the LRSD by farming out its schools to charter management organizations. The bill is also Exhibit A in the argument that billionaire charter supporter Jim Walton or his family's influential foundation is playing some role (however obliquely) in big picture decision-making about the LRSD: It is widely known that HB 1733 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 charters keep proliferating) or rapidly (if legislation like HB 1733 does come to pass and the district is actively dismantled). These past months, Kurrus spoke out against the proposed expansion of two Little Rock charter schools with surprising boldness, arguing that the plans forwarded by eStem and LISA Academy would harm the LRSD and its children by effectively concentrating struggling students in traditional public schools. It is widely presumed that Kurrus' outspokenness on the issue caused Key — a supporter of charter schools — to deem him unsuitable. (Key denies this; his explanation is that Kurrus was a fantastic leader, but he found an even better one in Michael Poore.)

But 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 state Board of Education on March 31. 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), 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 suspended with the state takeover, but public pressure still matters.

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 steady, incremental progress toward his conservative agenda. Ever the 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.

Hutchinson probably isn't going to reverse course on the Kurrus decision, but it's clear he's trying to manage the fallout. He's met with city directors and the mayor, with business leaders and Little Rock legislators.

To be clear, paying such attention 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 Hutchinson seems discomfited by just how explosive Kurrus' firing has proved to be, and he 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 still lives in Little Rock. And given how much Hutchinson likes his politics to be well-ordered, the volley of calls and letters his office has been receiving aren't going unnoticed.

3. The relative unity around this issue provides an opportunity.

It may be confusing to some that Sens. Chesterfield and Elliott wanted Kurrus to stay, given that they objected to his appointment last summer. Their concerns were legitimate, however. Kurrus' hiring (like his firing) was done with no community input — and because Kurrus lacked any academic background in education, his appointment required a waiver of statute by the state Board of Education.

For many Kurrus skeptics, 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 unique and perhaps irreplaceable thing that Kurrus brought to the table 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 union 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. 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. Such solidarity wouldn't be occurring now if Kurrus hadn't mostly done the right things as district leader. The reaction we're seeing now is the result of 10 months of decisive action 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 some LRSD advocates inclined to be suspicious of his motives from the beginning.

This provides the opportunity, however tenuous, to establish a coherent agenda for a broader coalition on a number of issues, no matter who is the superintendent. Opposition to privatization is only one example. There's also the construction of a new high school for under-resourced Southwest Little Rock; the public needs to hold the new superintendent accountable to Key's pledge to proceed with those plans. Teachers and staff who've already willingly made a number of concessions in the name of detente (sacrificing two paid days to ease budget pressures, for example) shouldn't be forced capriciously into giving up even more. If underpopulated school buildings need to be closed, that must be done with maximum transparency and minimum disruption to students and families.

But maybe the most important item on such an agenda 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. It's unclear how Kurrus felt about the state takeover to begin with, but 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. 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. That same sense of impotence and disfranchisement didn't fully hit home among much of the white community until Kurrus was fired last week.

Whatever his thoughts on the takeover initially, Kurrus recently has suggested a return to local control sooner rather than later. The superintendent told reporters last week 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 students in those schools performed proficient or advanced on standardized tests. But the latest scores show relative parity between LRSD schools and Little Rock charters. Kurrus said he thought the LRSD wouldn't remain under state control for the full five years allowed under law. Is it possible Kurrus' firing could prompt a groundswell of support for expediting a return to local governance?

4. A federal lawsuit is at play.

The wild card in all of this is the three-pronged federal lawsuit currently before U.S. District Judge Price Marshall alleging racially discriminatory motives on behalf of the state Education Department and the state board. That suit, which was brought by Walker, aims to (1) halt the construction of the planned West Little Rock middle school, (2) stop charter school expansions and (3) reverse the state takeover of the LRSD.

The first prong was adjudicated last month when Marshall ruled that the West Little Rock 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.

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 March hearing over the new West Little Rock campus, Marshall indicated his confidence in Kurrus specifically.

"This city and this school district need renovation, and need a new birth," Marshall said at the time, "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."

It's not the judge's call whether Kurrus should be reinstated as superintendent. The questions before Marshall in the coming months are whether the state should be in charge of Little Rock's schools at all, and whether charter expansions (which require approval by the state) will increase segregation in Little Rock public education. Considering Kurrus was fired so soon after he presented information to the state Board of Education alleging charter schools have a de facto segregative effect, those questions now seem inextricably entwined.

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