On Monday, April 18, after less than a year on the job, Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus informed LRSD staff and stakeholders that he was being let go. Kurrus’ last day will be June 30, which is when his one-year contract expires.
Normally, the decision to hire and fire a superintendent is the domain of the local school board. But the LRSD has no school board. That elected, seven-member panel was forcibly dissolved in January 2015, when the state Board of Education voted to take over the district based on the low academic performance of six schools (out of 48 campuses total). With the LRSD now under state control, such decision-making authority rests in the hands of a single man: Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who heads the state Department of Education.
Key, a former Republican legislator from Mountain Home, named Kurrus as superintendent last May after the previous head of the district, Dexter Suggs, departed under the cloud of a plagiarism scandal. Kurrus was an unconventional choice: A Harvard-trained lawyer, successful businessman and lifelong resident of Little Rock, his long years of experience serving on the local school board from 1998 to 2010 gave him an intimate knowledge of the LRSD’s political fault lines, but he lacked the background in education that most superintendents are required to have. At the time, Key requested a waiver of law from the state Board of Education so that he could hire Kurrus.
Many in the education community had their doubts about selecting a businessman to run the public schools. But in the past 10 months, Kurrus has moved with alacrity. He’s replaced multiple principals, reorganized systems throughout the district, entered a contract to open a new middle school in West Little Rock by the coming 2016-17 school year and begun planning a new high school in Southwest Little Rock, and tirelessly visited every school in the LRSD to identify needs. He’s identified major budget cuts at a time when the district faces an impending loss of $37 million annually due to the end of payments from the state in a decades-old desegregation settlement. By refinancing bonds and identifying operational savings — while avoiding mass layoffs — he’s developed a plan to pay for the new construction. He continued a contract with the Little Rock Education Association, the classroom teachers’ union, though one dramatically reduced in scope from past agreements. Nonetheless, he’s also worked hard to build a relationship with the LREA and teachers in general.
As word of Kurrus’ unexpected dismissal spread, so did a sense of outrage among parents, teachers, community leaders and other Little Rock residents, many of whom have often found themselves on opposite sides of the district’s fractious public education issues. On Monday evening, Mayor Mark Stodola — normally reluctant to engage in political controversy — wrote in a Facebook post, “Can’t believe Baker Kurrus’ contract will not be extended. He has put LRSD on the right track. I have call in to the Governor to try and get this decision reversed. I predict major blow back from LR citizens if this decision is not changed.” In a statement, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce said it was “surprised and concerned” about the news.
Others had stronger words. “I’m sick,” said Cathy Koehler, president of the LREA. “He has led the district in a way that has restored faith and hope.” State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), one of the legislature’s foremost public education advocates, said “the firing of Baker Kurrus is an unspeakable breach of faith with the families, students and the rest (mostly anyway) of Little Rock.” Greg Adams, a former Little Rock School Board president and co-chair of the district’s Civic Advisory Committee, said “it is a sad day for the LRSD and for Little Rock.”
Even Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), the civil rights lawyer who has filed a federal lawsuit over both the state takeover of the LRSD and the district’s construction of the new West Little Rock middle school, offered measured support for the man he’s named as a defendant in court: He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Kurrus was “an advocate for public education” and “seemed to be the voice of some moderation.”
Why, then, given the community support for a superintendent in a district that has suffered such chronic instability, is Kurrus being removed?
At a press conference Tuesday, Key offered a vague and unconvincing explanation. The commissioner praised the superintendent’s work, saying the district has “turned the corner” and that Kurrus was the “one person who could do that” in the tumult following the takeover and Suggs’ departure. But Key said it is now time to “make a turn on the academic side and have an academic leader who has a track record to turn around a large urban district.” The commissioner said Gov. Hutchinson, to whom he directly reports, was aware of his decision.
Kurrus, the commissioner said, “didn’t do anything wrong. He did everything right. He set the stage for the next direction of leadership.”
To that end, Key continued, he was hiring Michael Poore, the former superintendent of Bentonville Public Schools United who unexpectedly stepped down last night from his post atop the affluent Northwest Arkansas district. Key said Poore had a “stellar career” in Colorado turning around schools. He also said Kurrus was not fired: June 30 merely marked “the end of the contract,” and it is time to move on to a “true, strong academic leader.” (Kurrus, who was also present at the press event, offered few remarks but made it clear the decision was Key’s.)
Kurrus’ lack of academic background in education is not immaterial, but Key’s statement contains an unspoken irony: The commissioner himself also has no such academic experience. When Gov. Hutchinson hired Key a little over a year ago, the legislature had to change state law regarding the mandatory credentials for the position. And, of course, the only legal justification for the entire state takeover of the LRSD was the district’s purported state of “academic distress.” If Kurrus is not qualified to steward an academic turnaround, why was he ever hired in the first place?
It seems far more likely that Kurrus fell out of favor with Key for a different reason: his outspoken challenge these past months to the expansion of two charter school operators in Little Rock, eStem Public Charter Schools and LISA Academy. A divided state Board of Education on March 31 approved plans by eStem and LISA to double their current combined enrollment in the coming years, with eStem declaring its intentions to expand further beyond that. The charters argued that expansion is necessary to meet latent parent demand, but advocates of the LRSD — including Kurrus — argued that the expansions will further concentrate disadvantaged students in the district.
Compared to the LRSD, eStem and LISA contain lower percentages of children who live in poverty, African-American and Hispanic students, English-language learners and special education students — all of which give the charters a strong demographic edge, statistically speaking. By drawing a cohort of students from disproportionately more affluent households away from traditional public schools, a growing charter school sector threatens to leave students in the LRSD in a worse situation, since a school’s performance tracks largely with its concentration of poverty. A district with growing poverty percentages is a district with compounding problems — and, of course, those problems are inherited by its students.
(For more on how charter expansion threatens to undermine the LRSD, read our cover story from last fall on eStem’s expansion plans.)
Kurrus amassed significant data illustrating that charter schools have tended to take higher income and white students from the LRSD and that expanded charter schools would likely continue this trend, further segregating education in Little Rock. He presented this information to the state Board of Education at its public hearing on the issue.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Kurrus said he asked Key about his future with the district on April 1 (“a propitious date,” he added with a slight smile). Key later told him his contract would not be renewed. Kurrus said they didn’t discuss the reason.
Kurrus’ highly public stand on the charter question perhaps did not sit well with Key, who as a state senator was a proponent for an “education reform” agenda promoting school “choice” — the unlimited ability for students to transfer from district to district, even for racially motivated reasons; promotion of charter schools; policies that diminish the power of unions, which are already attenuated in Arkansas; and so forth. If speaking out against charter school growth is what doomed Kurrus’ chances in the LRSD, it’s hard not to see the hand of Jim Walton at work. Arkansas’s richest man is one of the country’s foremost advocates for education “reform,” and the Walton Family Foundation directly and indirectly lobbies state government on behalf of charters, along with advocating for other education issues. Walton has taken a direct interest in the growth of charters in Little Rock: In 2015, legislation that would have opened the door to widespread privatization of LRSD schools originated with a Walton-backed lobbyist. The bill failed in committee after public outcry and lobbying from traditional public school organizations, but education advocates fear it will return in the 2017 legislative session.
Kurrus’ leadership, it should be mentioned, hasn’t always been at odds with the Walton vision for education. He played hardball with the teachers’ union on their contract renegotiation and agreed to bring a number of Teach for America corps members into the district. (TFA, a program that places high-achieving young college graduates in teaching positions with little formal training, is much beloved among education reformers such as the Waltons.) But on the charter school question, Kurrus was unyielding in his advocacy for traditional public education — something that flies in the face of education reform orthodoxy.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Key was asked directly by reporters whether the charter decision was behind Kurrus’ dismissal. The commissioner said that was not the case, but others are not convinced.
Bill Kopsky, an LRSD parent and political activist (and occasional columnist for the Arkansas Times), said, “What Little Rock needs more than anything is stability and confidence and Baker was supplying that. Johnny [Key] and the governor have now torn that to shreds to wage their ideological war. And children will suffer. I don’t know how parents can have any confidence now in the direction the district is taken.” Kopsky also lamented that charter schools caused the change. It’s a needless distraction from larger issues, he said, noting that research doesn’t support the presumption that charter schools are superior to their traditional counterparts.
Indeed, that conclusion is borne out by the state Education Department’s “report cards” issued to public schools just last week and based on 2014-15 testing data — a letter-grade system mandated by the legislature to make it easier, supposedly, for parents to compare schools. Such single-letter grading systems are perhaps more misleading than helpful, considering how difficult it is to compare schools with dramatically disparate populations based on standardized test scores. But since such quantitative accountability measures are emphasized so heavily by education reform advocates, it is instructive to compare the scores of charters and traditional public schools in Little Rock. Consider the “grades” for public middle schools in the city on the chart below.
The rating system, which is based on a scale of 1 to 300, derives from a weighted score based on both student performance on a standardized test and student growth compared to previous years. (Elementary and high school scores can be found at the Arkansas Department of Education website.)
EStem Middle School fell from a B the year before to a C in 2014-15. All the Little Rock schools but Dunbar rose in 2014-15, Henderson by two letter grades. Again, overreliance on scores can be wildly misleading — note that a mere point for Cloverdale, and for Little Rock Prep Academy, kept these schools out of the C grade ranking. However, the state’s own numbers clearly contradict the narrative of thriving charter schools and failing public schools.
To be clear, Kurrus can’t take the credit for the 2014-15 rankings, since he was hired last summer. Nor, for that matter, can the state Education Department. Substantially all of the education that went into the 2014-15 scores occurred while the Little Rock schools were still under the control of the elected local school board and before the state took over the entire district for the “failure” of six of 48 schools, including Henderson and Cloverdale. The numbers raise anew questions about whether the LRSD’s academic situation necessarily warranted a takeover in the first place.
Kurrus said at the Tuesday press conference that test scores in Little Rock are improving and efforts to produce academic results are bearing fruit. “I don’t think we’ll be in academic distress for five years,” the superintendent said. “Compare Little Rock to its peer group right now, and I think there’s a good question about the relative [academic] distress.”
Sen. Elliott said she had little respect for the report card as a legitimate measure of school performance, but was “stunned” that Kurrus would be let go just as, according to the grading system, the Little Rock School District was making progress. Kurrus and the teachers’ union were working together “to make sure things are better — just when we see progress and just when we begin to get some stability in this district, the very people who supposedly took over the district because of instability are just creating more instability. They were supposed to be the ones who were going to make sure that families and students in this district knew that there was a way forward.”
Elliott still has doubts about appointing noneducators to govern districts, she said. But, “I think Baker Kurrus had done a terrific job under circumstances that were not amenable to anybody taking this position. I just know personally, he virtually worked around the clock to be inclusive and to try to build up morale in this district so that people would believe there was a reason for moving forward, so that teachers would know somebody was making a difference.
“It seems to me that, apparently, Johnny Key and the governor seem determined to snatch success away from this school district because [success] is what was going on by their own measures,” she said.
It remains to be seen whether Michael Poore, the Bentonville superintendent, can fill Kurrus’ shoes, and it would be unfair to judge him prematurely. Poore has headed the Bentonville schools since June 2011, during which time he developed a strategic plan for the district and implemented a new “Response to Intervention” plan targeting struggling students. Before that, Poore served as deputy superintendent and chief academic officer for a school district in Colorado Springs, Colo., from July 2007 to June 2011.
But although Colorado Springs may be an urban district (unlike Bentonville), it too faces challenges of poverty proportionally smaller than those in Little Rock: A look at U.S. Census data shows the city of Colorado Springs has a poverty rate of 13.9 percent (below the national average) compared to 18 percent in Little Rock, well above the national average.
Then there are Little Rock’s fraught racial dynamics — rooted in a long history of discrimination and segregation — which bring additional challenges to bear on any LRSD superintendent. Little Rock is a majority-minority city, around 42 percent African American, 7 percent Latino and 47 percent non-Hispanic white. Colorado Springs is 71 percent non-Hispanic white. That doesn’t mean Poore can’t succeed, but he’ll have a lot of learning to do about the LRSD, the city and its history — the sort of granular knowledge that Kurrus has accrued over decades of living here and years of public service.
There is also the fact that Bentonville is, of course, the seat of the Walton fortune that brings so much influence to bear over education in Arkansas. What is Poore’s philosophy regarding charter schools, equity, teachers’ unions and a host of other issues? We simply don’t know.
One thing is clear: Poore will be better compensated than Kurrus, to the tune of around $75,000 annually. A draft contract with the Education Department calls for pay of $225,000 to lead the district through the next school year, plus a car and phone allowance. It allows for his termination without cause before June 30, 2017, with 30 days notice. Poore made $209,500 in Bentonville. Kurrus worked for $150,000.
As for Kurrus, what will he do after June 30? He didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about Key’s proposal of a partnership or consultant work.
“Life marches on,” he said at the Tuesday press conference. He touted some recent scholarships won by Little Rock students; he mentioned how proud he was of the district’s teachers.
“I work here, I live here, ” he said. “I’ll be here.”