The keys for Johnny Key: leading, mending

Johnny Key speaks after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announces him as his choice as education commissioner.
Johnny Key speaks after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announces him as his choice as education commissioner.
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I’m not the first person to point out that two of the most important people in Arkansas education these days are not educators. Not surprisingly, some educators are not happy about this.

Those two would be former Sen. Johnny Key, the state’s new education commissioner, and Baker Kurrus, the new Little Rock School District superintendent, who was appointed by Key.

Until this past legislative session, Key legally could not have served in his current post. Under previous state law, the state’s education commissioner was required to have been an educator for 10 years with five years’ experience as an administrator. Key has owned a day care but has not worked in education.

Previously, he was chairman of the Senate Education Committee and was the leading legislator regarding education policy. In that role, the Republican won friends and respect because of his cooperative, conciliatory, consensus-building style. You might not agree with him, but he’s fair.

He’s also perhaps the best person to be education commissioner, despite his lack of qualifications.

For the past decade, Arkansas education has been marked by consensus thanks to a common enemy – the fear of returning to court. The state spent many years under the thumb of the Lake View case because the Arkansas Constitution requires a “general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools,” which the courts redefined as “adequate” and “equitable.” To get the state out of court, and keep it out, legislators poured money into schools and then regularly gave them a cost of living raise, at the expense of all other state priorities. When other states were cutting school funding, Arkansas was increasing it.

But thanks to time and term limits, Lake View is a fading memory, and the ties that bound everyone together are fraying. A real divide exists now at the Capitol among education reformers, including some Republican legislators, and the education establishment. If anybody can bring those two sides together, it’s Key, the former Republican legislator known for fairness.

Still, the idea that a non-educator would be in charge of education policy is understandably hard for some educators to accept. He’s never been in the trenches with them. He’s never tried to teach geometry to a struggling student, or administer a standardized test, or deal firsthand with the laws he helped pass. My wife the other day said the president of the United States ought to have served in the military, of which he or she serves as commander-in-chief. It’s the same principle.

Key has some fences to mend across the state, especially after one of his first major acts was to appoint Kurrus as superintendent of the Little Rock School District. As education commissioner, Key effectively is a one-man school board for every district under state control, and that includes the state’s largest.

Like Key, Kurrus has crafted education policy but isn’t an educator. A well-respected attorney and businessman, he served 12 years on the Little Rock School Board and has been heading a committee studying the district’s finances. If Key is best described as “conciliatory and cooperative,” Kurrus could be described as “thoroughly competent,” and the district could use a lot of that right now.

But he’s not a competent educator, or at least, not an experienced one. The appointment of a legislator to lead education – that was tough for some to swallow. When that legislator named an attorney and businessman to lead Little Rock’s schools – well, then it became kind of a one-two punch.

Outsiders can bring a needed fresh perspective, and there are many walks of life where an organization’s leader is not necessarily an expert in that organization’s primary mission. It works well when those leaders understand their role and limitations and let the experts do their jobs. When I asked Key about his lack of experience, he cited the example of the hospital CEO who is not a doctor. Would any patient care? Of course not.

Is that a good analogy? Mostly, although in many hospitals, the doctors are the stars with the ultimate power, and the CEO, no matter how well paid, plays a support role. Teachers don’t quite have that kind of sway. The most important single person in Arkansas public education is now Johnny Key. The most important single person in Little Rock public education is now Baker Kurrus, and the person to whom he answers is Key.

This can work as long as they know their roles, let the experts do their jobs, and mend some fences.

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