Johnny Key, the former state senator tapped despite lack of education credentials to implement Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s ideas on education reform (see Walton Family Foundation for Cliffs Notes) got off to a poor start with remarks yesterday to the state Board of Education.
He defended the state takeover of the Little Rock School District, naturally, as part of the state’s constitutional duty to provide an equal and adequate education. The Democrat-Gazette quoted him as going farther, however, than addressing the six of 48 district schools that were found in academic distress for scoring below 50 on proficiency tests.
“It needs to embark on a comprehensive improvement process that … takes a more holistic view of the district, its finances, its operations and its academics with the overarching concept of how to best educate students,” Key said.
The suggestion continues by implication the well-worn message of critics that Little Rock is, in its entirety, a failing school district. It’s a lie, but you read it regularly in the Walton-financed output of paid lackeys at the University of Arkansas and in the pages of another fellow traveler in the Billionaire Boys Club, Walter Hussman’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Dozens of schools, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students already operate every day with education at the forefront. Holistically even, whatever that cliched term means. Plenty of evidence exists that some good things happen there. Two of the four National Achievement scholars from Arkansas — top black students — came from Little Rock and the other two from two other oft-derided public school districts in Pulaski County. As always, Little Rock led the state in production of National Merit scholars. Even some of the officially “failing” schools have shown improvement in test scores — cited even for improvement by Waltonites at the Walton campus in Fayetteville. Throughout the district you’ll find solidly achieving schools — not just magnets and neighborhood schools in prosperous areas — but also some notable outliers with populations of poor, minority students. Enough? No. But not also utter failure.
Unlike Johnny Key, I have some experience on which to base my assessment of the district — 25 years of combined schooling for two children. I’ve joined the critics of administrative overload. I’ve joined the critics of shuffling of incompetent principals. I”ve lamented the divisions that have sometimes made governance difficult. I had some sympathy to the case for state takeover.
But Key will produce a self-fulfilling prophecy (which may be his intention) by making the whole district out to be a failure. He and the governor had hoped for passage of the bill that would allow privatizing of the entire school district to the eventual profit of education entrepreneurs, despite an utter lack of national evidence that this produces systemic improvement. But he’ll build the case that only such a radical means is the solution.
Key’s only experience in education was as an owner of a religion-oriented daycare that needed a reminder that the U.S. Constitutioin doesn’t allow reglious exercises in publicly funded operations. He profited from public tax money paying for children to go to his schools.
He’s a man with a mission. It is to fulfill the Billionaire Boys Club agenda. They were set back this legislative session. When they elect enough sympathetic members, they’ll get the rest. Then we can do a Johnny Key act and bemoan the need for a holistic approach to education in Pulaski County, one that puts kids ahead of political agendas and private profiteers. The recent mad rush to scavenge the bones of the Pulaski County School district to create districts in Sherwood, Maumelle and from the Scott area likely will doom an important bond issue vote May 12 for that beleaguered district. And, by the way, if every city must have its own school district, when will Little Rock get one? By design of the segregators, it has been deprived of upscale western Little Rock growth territory. It should grow with the city.
Meanwhile, the Democrat-Gazette duly reported but didn’t highlight story behind the exquisite timing of Johnny Key’s lecture about the failing Little Rock School District. On the very same day, the state Board of Education approved a five-year renewal of the charter of the Arkansas Virtual Charter School. It’s a windfall profit-making machine for a private outfit that serves essentially homeschoolers. It gets $6,600 a year for each of 2,000 students, though it has only 29 teachers, no gyms, no cafeterias, no buses, no special teachers for a wide range of AP courses that, for example, Little Rock offers.
It also has this — unimpressive test scores and a huge dropout rate. Its proficiency scores have been dropping. Oh, but, see, they have excuses. They’ve had a huge jump in enrollment recently. Why? Because none other than Johnny Key used special language committee trickery in 2013 to ram through a 1,500-student enrollment increase after the whole legislature had refused to lift the 500-student cap. That amounts to a good $10 million windfall for the private operators. Ignore the results. Give them time. That’s accountability in Arkansas.
Some of the lowest scoring schools in Little Rock face some of the same problems the Virtual Charter faces. Transient populations of poor children who bounce from school to school, sometimes living out of cars. They are impoverished. They are minorities. But those schools get no excuses. They are taken over by Johnny Key, who’s kept the failed leader of this enterprise, Superintendent Dexter Suggs, as his puppet.
What else has the state done? Moved to fire some administrators. The right ones? Doesn’t matter. Principals? Nothing yet.
But the School Board is gone, by God. They were the ones responsible for classroom instruction, teacher evaluation and principal choices, weren’t they? Hint: No.
It is becoming harder than ever to accept that the school takeover was anything more than another example of the state’s racially motivated treatment of Little Rock schools, a pattern now 60 years old. The powers that be would not tolerate a black majority School Board.
And now Johnny Key wants to tell dedicated parents, teachers and students that their entire effort is a failure. Speaking as one parent, one former LRSD mentor, one taxpayer, one voter deprived of my elected representative (a co-conspirator though she was in this sad charade), I’m insulted.
By the way, it became official yesterday that Key has deputized Deborah Coffman to effectively run the school district. She’ll be his liaison to Dexter Sugg. In case you wondered who’s running the show now:
She was named Chief of Staff by Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, since moved on, in 2013. She had been director of professional development (cutting teacher class prep time is among the new budget cutting ideas for Little Rock.) She’s also been an “instructional facilitator” for Pocahontas Public Schools (there’s some of that “educanto” the D-G editorial page always rails about); a literacy specialist at the Northeast Education Service Cooperative (a nest of administrator bureaucrats who don’t get in classrooms, to use the “reformers” formulaton), and a former elementary teacher at Hoxie and in private school. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Arkansas State.
Don’t be confused if the Pravda of the “education reform” movement credits Suggs for leadership in future developments.