BARCLAY KEY: Little Rock historian takes a critical view of progress in Little Rock after the school crisis and gets a warm review from Diane Ravitch, a noted national educator.

Diane Ravitch, a powerful voice against the billionaires trying to replace an egalitarian public education system with a fractured system of winners and losers segregated by race and income in private or privately operated schools, is giving a shoutout to Barclay Key of Little Rock for his review of Little Rock 60 years after the school crisis.

Key wrote an article,  in advance of the city’s “Reflections on Progress” observance of the 60th school crisis anniversary, that appears on Alternet. He  has future presentations on the topic scheduled, including soon in the UA-Little Rock History Institute’s lecture series. He teaches history at UALR and has been an outspoken foe of the Little Rock School District takeover by the state.


Ravitch’s summary, read by an enormous national audience, on what has changed in Little Rock since 1957 in Key’s view

Now Little Rock’s public schools are segregated again. At the behest of the Walton Family (which owns Arkansas), the public schools were taken over by the state. The man in charge [Johnny Key] is not, never was, an educator. The ostensible reason for the takeover was that six of the city’s 48 schools were “failing.” Since then, three of the 48 schools have been closed. More are on the chopping block, including schools with a long and honorable history.

Barclay Key, a historian at the University of Arkansas, writes the sad story of the past sixty years here. (What! The Walton family forgot to buy the history department!)

It appears that the Walton family wants to turn Little Rock into the next New Orleans, the next Memphis. It wants to wipe out public schools and replace them with charters. It wants to silence the voice of local citizens and give them no role in determining the future of their schools.

Key writes:

The two most striking parallels between the past and present are the insistence by white leaders that they know what is best for Black families and students and the recurrent role that local white business leaders play in undermining the public school system and prioritizing their prerogatives for the city…

Sixty years ago Little Rock epitomized desegregation struggles in the South, but the city now follows a path worn by New Orleans, Memphis, and other cities wracked by the proliferation of charter schools. Like they have over the past sixty years, politicians and business leaders presume to know what is best for public schools, and their decisions reflect a preoccupation with the latest trends in business rather than research-based pedagogy. The replacement for the elected board, state education commissioner Johnny Key, was appointed by the new Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson despite having no experience as an educator. Key appointed a superintendent who was generally trusted by the city’s white elites, but that superintendent was promptly replaced when he openly criticized the inefficiency of expanding charter schools in a district that has been gradually losing students for years. With the exception of reconstituting one school, the state made no substantive changes at the distressed schools.

“Reflections of Progress” will serve as the theme for the sixtieth anniversary of the desegregation crisis. Things have certainly changed, but the standard is too low if we measure progress by events that unfolded in 1957. Reflecting on progress since 1967 would be more appropriate and sobering. White men again make all decisions for the school district. They act with the support of the Chamber of Commerce and, today, the Walton charter school lobby controlled by the state’s powerful Walton family. Since the state takeover, many of the same bureaucrats have their six-figure salaries. Many of the same children cannot read. Little Rock periodically commemorates the 1957 controversy, but it constantly relives 1967.

The Walton Family Foundation is engraved on this blog’s Wall of Shame. It doesn’t stand alone, but it has a place of pre-eminence on a wall that lists those who have used their money and power to betray democracy, public schools, and the American dream.


A few points. 1) Key is no relation so far as I know to Johnny Key. 2) Barclay Key, Joyce Elliott and others from Little Rock appear in a new Netflix documentary, “Teach Us All,” on school desegregation with a significant portion on Little Rock. It was screened here last night by the Arkansas Cinema Society and UA-Little Rock’s Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity. The film has a noticeable slant in favor of the school “choice” crowd (Lowell Milken was a backer) though there’s plenty of pushback in the film (and certainly in discussion afterward) about how “choice” can be a dog whistle for avoiding people who are not like us. One of the stars was Jonathan Crossley, the principal hired by Baker Kurrus to turn around Baseline Elementary (now Academy). Impressive in the movie, more impressive in person. Until we see everyone as a human, and not a category, Crossley said, we’ll never move forward. I’m sending his student support fund some money.

A variety of disclosures: My wife is a participant in the History Institute and serves on the board of the Anderson Institute. Also, coincidentally, her father, Warren K. Bass,  is referenced, though not by name, in Key’s account. He was one of the Little Rock School Board members voted out of office in 1967 for favoring the Oregon Plan, which called for a stepped-up pace of integration, particularly in high schools. As Key writes, Hall was then virtually all white, Mann all black and Central High about 15 percent black. My father-in-law was a liberal Democrat who joined the Rockefeller team, if not the GOP, in the Faubus years. Those School Board defeats, strictly decided on opposition to more integration, Key notes, perpetuated white business establishment control of the schools in ways that advanced both residential and school segregation in everything from highway construction to zoning to westward development that put newly developed areas outside the Little Rock School District.


A favorite  Bass family story is about the mother of a child to a Heights mansion born calling my father-in-law in tears at the prospect her child might have to attend Central rather than Hall High School. High irony there, given Hall’s position today as a predominantly minority school and the location of choice for non-English speakers.

Meaningful school desegregation didn’t come to Little Rock until the 1970s, thanks to lawsuits and busing. In time, white flight led to a majority black school board that the business community, embodied by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, would not abide. And here we are today, with white opponents of affirmative action and conventional public schools in control of the state’s largest — and majority black — school district.