Demo­cratic re­birth

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett

Jonathan Cross­ley is a hap­pen­ing thing in Lit­tle Rock ed­u­ca­tion. And now he con­ceiv­ably rep­re­sents a hap­pen­ing thing in Arkansas Demo­cratic pol­i­tics.

He’s a 29-year-old South Carolin- ian who is the first in his mill-work­ing fam­ily to fin­ish col­lege. He be­lieved he had an obli­ga­tion to serve the pub­lic need. He thought he’d prob­a­bly do it as a lawyer. But then it hit him that the most ba­sic need was ed­u­ca­tion.

He came to the Delta re­gion of east­ern Arkansas un­der the Teach for Amer­ica pro­gram. For three years, he lived in a house in a soy­bean field while he taught at the Pales­tine-Wheat­ley School District.

In 2014, he was named Teacher of the Year in Arkansas and, as such, be­came an ex-of­fi­cio mem­ber of the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion. The next year, then-su­per­in­ten­dent Baker Kur­rus re­cruited him hard to be­come prin­ci­pal of Base­line El­e­men­tary School, one of the Lit­tle Rock’s district’s aca­dem­i­cally fail­ing schools, the con­di­tion of which pre­cip­i­tated the state gov­ern­ment takeover.

Kur­rus gave Cross­ley au­thor­ity to as­sem­ble an all-star fac­ulty. In a year, Base­line, with an all-mi­nor­ity en­roll­ment more than half of which was learn­ing English as a sec­ond lan­guage, tested it­self out of aca­demic fail­ure. In the new Net­flix doc­u­men­tary

Teach Us All, made on the oc­ca­sion of the 60th an­niver­sary of the Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High cri­sis, film­maker So­nia Low­man looked at the tragic re-seg­re­ga­tion of pub­lic schools na­tion­wide since 1957, and, upon ask­ing whether any­one was suc­ceed­ing in the trou­bled con­tem­po­rary en­vi­ron­ment, show­cased the suc­cess of Cross­ley and Base­line.

“Jonathan Cross­ley is a big deal,” state Rep. Michael John Gray told me Mon­day.

He did not mean in ed­u­ca­tion, though Cross­ley is in­deed a big deal there.

Gray is chair­man of the state Demo­cratic Party. By “big deal,” Gray meant Cross­ley’s newly an­nounced de­ci­sion to run next year for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for a Repub­li­can-oc­cu­pied state rep­re­sen­ta­tive seat in north­ern Pu­laski County, where he lives.

My in­ter­est is that Cross­ley rep­re­sents what I think I sense, which is the seed of a gen­er­a­tional change from the ex­hausted Clin­ton legacy in state Demo­cratic pol­i­tics—and, be­yond that, the po­ten­tial launch­ing of a new and rein­vig­o­rated Demo­cratic pol­i­tics in Arkansas, even, per­haps, a move­ment.

Cross­ley told me that, yes, sev­eral like-minded ed­u­ca­tors in their 20s, 30s and 40s have been meet­ing lately to dis­cuss how they might adapt their ed­u­ca­tion mis­sion into a newly fo­cused Demo­cratic pol­i­tics in the state—and whether this new pol­i­tics is a key el­e­ment of what they see as their call­ing.

Cross­ley said no one else in that con­ver­sa­tion has yet pulled the trig­ger on a po­lit­i­cal race. But he was aware of some­thing I hap­pen to have heard. It’s that a po­ten­tial can­di­date with a bi­og­ra­phy and record of in­ter­est and ac­com­plish­ment much like Cross­ley’s is think­ing about fly­ing the likely kamikaze mis­sion of a Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dacy.

You must start some­where. The Democrats will re­quire a can­di­date for gov­er­nor next year. And that can­di­date will war­rant a statewide fo­rum for ad­vanc­ing—maybe—a new teach­ing fo­cus in dis­ad­van­taged schools, a new en­tre­pre­neur­ial em­pha­sis and a bully pul­pit for at­tack­ing teen preg­nancy so that the state’s poor ar­eas might end the prac­tice of los­ing two gen­er­a­tions at once when chil­dren have chil­dren.

Cross­ley rep­re­sents bright and driven young pro­gres­sives given to pub­lic ser­vice who be­lieve Arkansas, to suc­ceed, must de­clare war on sub­stan­dard schools in im­pov­er­ished ar­eas. He and oth­ers be­lieve the state must do so with new young teach­ers spe­cially re­cruited, spe­cially tal­ented, spe­cially com­mit­ted, spe­cially trained and higher-salar­ied for the chal­lenges that make teach­ing in the Delta and the in­ner city en­tirely dif­fer­ent from teach­ing at subur­ban havens such as Cabot or Con­way or Bryant.

That other fel­low may or may not de­cide to run for gov­er­nor.

Cross­ley has fully de­cided to run for the Leg­is­la­ture. He has pas­sion, en­ergy, a strong bi­og­ra­phy and a com­pelling mes­sage.

You won’t nec­es­sar­ily start a new po­lit­i­cal move­ment with all of that. But you can’t even con­tem­plate one with­out it.

John Brum­mett, whose col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette, was in­ducted into the Arkansas Writ­ers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrum­mett@arkansason­line.com. Read his @john­brum­mett Twit­ter feed.

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