Arkansas continues its dereliction of duty in educating its young people with the May 22 announcement by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that he will promote current Education Commissioner Johnny Key to the governor’s new cabinet position of Education Secretary. With this promotion, Key will add another $3,450 per year to his already ridiculous salary of $239,540 and gain ever greater leverage over the hapless citizenry of our state.
Readers may remember the insidious maneuvering required to cram Key into the commissioner position in the first place. Back in 2015, Key’s work history and educational achievements did not qualify him for the job. The law required a master’s degree and ten years teaching experience. When Gov. Hutchinson seized on the idea of putting Key in the post, a bill rushed through the legislature allowed the commissioner to evade these requirements if the deputy commission held those credentials. Not that the commissioner would be required to obtain the advice or consent of the deputy in any given matter.
Key graduated from Gurdon (Arkansas) High School then received a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering in 1991 from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He never taught a day in his life. That is, unless you count his and his wife’s operation of two pre-schools in Mountain Home, Noah’s Ark Preschool and Open Arms Living Center, operations that for years applied for and received tax-funded grants while flagrantly teaching religion. Another state legislator, Justin Harris (West Fork) also operated illegally with such dollars for his Growing God’s Kingdom preschool. All three schools received funding from the state under the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program administered by the Department of Human Service (DHS). After complaints were filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the state had no choice but to amend its grant guidelines.
AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith told Church & State. “The administrators of the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program violated the Constitution by funding [these] religious activities.”
According to a 2011 Arkansas Times report, “Sen. Johnny Key gets almost $200,000 in public money a year in support of his Noah’s Ark Preschool in Mountain Home, which also provides Bible lessons and daily prayers. Nearly 300 agencies — many of them with religious roots — receive $100 million a year in public Arkansas Better Chance funding to provide preschool for poor children.”
The stated mission of the Harris preschool was to “share the love of Jesus” with students, and the school operated with a Christian curriculum that included a “Bible time” for verses, stories and prayer. The school’s handbook also assured parents that staff members will “strive to ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.” The preschoolers, it continues, would be taught “the word of God” so that they can “spread the word of God to others.” They also prayed over students with disciplinary problems and laid on hands to “cast out demons.”
Key began his career in public service in 1997 when he was elected to serve as a justice of the peace on the Baxter County Quorum Court. He was elected to three two-year terms in the House of Representatives, followed by a tenure in the Senate that began in 2008. Term limited out of the legislature, Key served as associate vice president for university relations at the University of Arkansas system, a position he began in August 2014, a half-year before his friend the governor found him a cozy role at the helm of the state’s education system.
Yet even while in the legislature, Key demonstrated his dedication to the extremist religious agenda in education:
He was active in education issues, including responsibility for exploding the number of seats that receive state dollars to essentially finance home-schooling, by qualifying millions in spending on “virtual charter schools” that provide assistance to students who don’t attend conventional brick-and-mortar schools. His special language, never debated on the floor, lifted the cap on such payments from 500 to 5,000 students.
Simultaneously, the state excused itself from any oversight of home-schooled students. There are no tests, no monitoring, no method by which to ensure thousands of Arkansas home-schooled kids are actually learning anything,
Key has also been a champion of public charter schools in the model promoted by the Walton heirs. While first lauded as a path for parents dissatisfied with their children’s education, charter schools have come under increasing scrutiny for siphoning money away from public schools with less than excellent results. Even worse, soon after taking over as education commissioner, Key became the default school board for Little Rock’s troubled schools. The district struggles with low-income, high minority populations where schools routinely earn “D” and “F” ratings in student outcomes. Key’s answer? Charters.
Much ink has been spilled over the Little Rock situation including Key’s desire to terminate the state’s Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act in the 22 traditional schools in Little Rock. As noted by one observer, “In the absence of democratic governance and oversight, Arkansas schools are hiring unqualified teachers without a public disclosure requirement, undermining labor standards for teachers, contributing to school re-segregation, and defrauding the public.”
Tracking the details of the Little Rock fiasco, the Arkansas Times reported that the previous superintendent, Baker Kurrus, who was fired by Key before his takeover, thought charter schools “probably unconstitutional when operated as parallel, inefficient and not particularly innovative or successful ventures in Little Rock. He mentioned then that the loss of 120 students for this latest expansion potentially meant a loss of approaching another $1 million in annual state support to the Little Rock District for lost students.”
No effort was made by the state to require Key or Harris to refund the millions in tax dollars they had appropriated over a period of years to operate their religious schools. And of course they didn’t honorably offer to do so. The ABC program only marginally amended its procedures for granting funding. The guidelines now require that no religious instruction occur during the “ABC day,” a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends is not the state’s concern. Since children are often picked up by school vans or dropped off by parents before the parents’ work hours and held until the end of the work day, anywhere from two to four hours of religious instruction is usually possible.
And who would know if these schools violate the ABC day with a little prayer at lunch or a few minutes of casting out demons?
The ABC program, as it stands, does not require any kind of viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could stand on its own two feet without the use of tax dollars. In fact, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, insurance, and salaries for general operations, these schools would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS / ABC money managers has yielded zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.
Neither Harris nor Key were censured for their illegal use of public funds for their religious schools. And while Harris quietly served out his remaining term in office before retreating to private life, Key has been awarded one of the highest paid positions in state government. If Key didn’t know he was breaking the law in accepting ABC grants, he’s incredibly stupid. Surely somewhere in his years of college he must have brushed up against the idea of separation of church and state and the hard line between tax dollars and religion. If he did know, he deliberately violated the U. S. Constitution, aided and abetted by the state’s willfully ignorant wink and nod.
Now Key reigns supreme over the state’s educational systems, welcomed with open arms by a governor whose own dedication to religion is no secret. After all, Asa Hutchinson is a proud graduate of none other than Bob Jones University, a private, non-denominational evangelical university in Greenville, South Carolina, known for its conservative cultural and religious stance. Refusing to admit African-American students until 1975, the school lost federal funding and ended up in court for not allowing interracial dating or marriage within its student body. BJU hit the news again in 2014 after a report revealed that administrators had discouraged students from reporting sexual abuse. [See the New York Times report.]
Apparently Johnny Key’s religious beliefs and willingness to breach the Constitution’s bright line between church and state are the primary criterion by which he has been judged the perfect man to be in charge of Arkansas education. It’s past time to assume ignorance as the underlying problem in Key’s malfeasance. The fact is that Hutchinson, Key, and every other complicit authority over our state’s educational systems knowingly evade the Constitutional separation of church and state in order to pursue their “higher calling” to religion.
See also this recent Forbes article on the failure of charter schools.