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 Carolinian 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.