Kentucky House Passes Bill to Limit Credit Hours for Obtaining Degrees

This week the Kentucky House of Representatives passed /files/2/0/0/6/0/216301-206002/Kentucky_House_Bill_160.doc”>House Bill 160 would limit credit hour requirements for all bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degree programs to 120 hours; and limit all associate of arts and associate of science degrees to 60 credit hours. The bill would, however, allow the Council on Postsecondary Education to approve exceptions to the requirement for “specialized programs that comply with specific program standards established by external accreditation bodies or for other reasons deemed necessary by the council. The stated intention of the measures is to increase the four-year graduation rate of students in public universities.

In my opinion, working toward a seamless transition from community and technical colleges to four-year public universities is a great idea. I believe that such a system would be in the best interests of both students and the Commonwealth’s post-secondary system. I will admit, however, that the General Assembly’s desire to dictate to colleges and universities the maximum number of credit hours for completion of associates and bachelors degrees was a bit startling to me. Upon hearing about the proposed measure, I decided to take a  totally non-scientific perusal of credit hour requirements for bachelors degrees at the University of kentucky and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. I found that that by and large, most degree programs do not require more than 120 credit hours for the completion of the bachelors degree or 60 credit hours for completing associates degrees. But I continue to wonder why the Kentucky House finds it necessary or even reasonable to legislate requirements for college degree programs. Admittedly, as a university professor I have some biases, but what expertise in degree program design does the General Assembly posses that university faculty and administrators are lacking? Really, I would like to know.

No Charters in Kentucky’s Race to the Top Application, But Why? Really?

After much talk about the possibility of “Race to the Top” influencing Kentucky to adopt charter school legislation, the Senate Education Committee today voted down an amendment that would have given life to the charter schools in the Commonwealth. The proposed measure would have only allowed for the conversion of chronically low-performing schools into charter schools. Critics of the proposed amendment argued that a last-minute change in the state’s Race to the Top application allowing for charter schools would have derailed the nearly unanimous support of the state’s school districts. In reality, however, unanimous support was not what lawmakers were afraid of losing. They were afraid of losing the support of the largest and arguably most influential district in Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisiville). Kentucky’s Education Commissioner said that the loss of district support of the application as a result of including charters could be more costly to the state’s application than not including the charter schools provision.

So for now, there will be no charter schools in Kentucky. But I do not believe that this is the end of charter school discussion in Kentucky. As I said in a post a while back, it’s been pretty interesting to me, a newcomer, listening to Kentuckians’ reactions to the charter school idea. It is as if “charter school” is a bad word here. And that’s fine. As I’ve said many times before, there are several good arguments against charter schools. For a look at some check out my a recent exchange on charter schools at The Edjurist. I guess the only thing that bothers me about the resistance to charter schools that I’ve heard in Kentucky is that most of it is misinformed. 

So let’s start with the basics. The charter school idea was based on Henry Hudson’s charter with the East India Company to explore the Arctic in 1609. The document detailed the purpose of Hudson’s trip, the risks, accountability requirements, procedures for compensation, and rewards for productivity. Ray Budde, considered by many as the father of the charter school idea, thought that a charter between teachers and parents could be similarly developed and used. Budde’s idea gained popularity with then American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Albert Shanker, who then pushed through the adoption of the idea with the AFT. The first charter school legislation came in 1991 in Minnesota, and today 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some variant of charter school legislation, with over 4,000 charter schools now in operation, and over one million students attending charter schools nationwide.

Some of those national statistics are what give so many people the impression that charter schools are a singular policy concept, with charter schools operating the same way in every state. But the truth is, because charter schools are a state-level reform, the idiosyncrasies of both individual charter schools and the state legislation that authorizes them make it difficult to speak of charters as a monolithic movement. For example, charter schools in Arizona are based on the assumption that market-like competition will bring about improvement in public schools, while Georgia’s charter school policy is not based on competition at all. Just about the only things that can be said about charter schools generally is that they are grounded in site-based management theory, which espouses that key decisions should be made at the school building level as opposed to the district central office or the state level. Other than that, however, there is extreme variation across states in terms of what charter schools are and how they operate.

So here is my issue: If charter school policies are written at the state level, meaning individual states decide what charter schools are, who can authorize them, how they will be authorized, how they will be held accountable, who they will be held accountable to, and how they will be funded; what is it about the general charter school concept that Kentuckians are so adamantly opposed to? It is completely natural that state teachers unions would oppose a charter school policy that does not require charter school teachers to be state certified. I get that. But who says that a charter school policy has to include that kind of provision. Any survey of state charter school policies shows clearly that a charter school is whatever a state wants it to be. And to be honest, charter schools in many states don’t operate significantly different than traditional public schools in Kentucky with school-based decision making councils. If someone is fundamentally opposed to school decentralization, and holds that many school decisions should in fact be made at levels higher than the school building administration, then yes, it is understandable that that persons would be opposed to the charter school concept. But that person would also be opposed to school-based decision making in any form.

Whether or not Kentucky ever adopts charter school legislation is not important to me. But what is important to me is that Kentuckians discuss and even debate the real issues; not misperceptions of issues. The education of children in Kentucky is too important to shut out possibilities because we don’t want to take the time to truly understand new ideas and have substantive, not political, discussions about them. I make this argument about charter schools and any other education policy issue that comes around. I say to my students all the time, you can take any position you want, but be able to substantiate it. Charter schools may not be right for Kentucky, but we need to do the work of coming to that conclusion.The decisions that we make about our children’s education must be based on reason; not feelings, not politics, and not what friends in other states say. Let’s do things right Kentucky. We owe it to our kids.

Concerns Over Socioeconomic and Racial Resegregation in North Carolina Schools

School districts across North Carolina are on the verge of eliminating busing policies aimed at achieving racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. Without those policies in place, those districts would become systems of primarily neighborhood schools which will undoubtedly be as socioeconomically and racially segregated as the neighborhoods where they stand. North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has said of recent initiatives across the state to move toward neighborhood schools, “It’s the most troubling thing I think that’s happened.” Governor Perdue has been vocal about her position on increasing and maintaining diversity in North Carolina’s public schools, saying “Whether it’s racially done or economically done, there has to be some kind of momentum to continue to have diversity in our schools.”

Critics of Wake County’s (Raleigh and surrounding suburbs) current policy which uses busing to maintain racial balance in schools argue that the practice does not result in traditionally under-served students receiving a higher quality education. Instead, they argue that these students are merely spread out across the school district so that their test scores don’t adversely affect any one school. According to Wake County School Board member John Tedesco, “If we have 5 or 10 percent of the children shuffled out among resources in other parts of the county, where they’re not getting the appropriate attention they need but we’re meeting some arbitrary goals, then we’re not serving those children well.” 
This can be a pretty sensitive subject, and both sides articulate and support their arguments very well. But here are some facts. A retreat from reassignment policies will result in a considerably higher degree of racial and socioeconomic segregation in North Carolina’s public schools. There’s no getting around that. Because neighborhoods are largely racially and socioeconomically segregated, the assignment of students to neighborhood schools will result in each school’s demographics mirroring the demographics of the neighborhood(s) that it serves. This scenario is not foreign to us because it is the reality in most places across the US. Most of our children today attend neighborhood schools, and there are many benefits of neighborhood schools, including sense of community, ease of parental involvement, and schools’ geographic placements making them ideal for serving as community hubs. 
But there are drawbacks to neighborhood schools as well. Neighborhood schools that serve middle and upper middle class neighborhoods typically are well-supported financially, stocked with resources, and staffed by highly qualified teachers. Schools that serve poor neighborhoods, however, typically do not have high levels of support, adequate resources, or sufficient numbers of highly qualified staff. This happens for a number of interrelated reasons. Because public education funding is dependent at least in part based on local property taxes, and the tax bases of lower income communities are smaller, the schools that serve poor communities typically operate with less funding. Lower funding results in fewer resources and lower local salary supplements for teachers. Also, some of the most qualified teachers have been less likely to apply for and stay in schools with lower pay and that serve lower income students and/or students of color. Any combination of these factors are reasons why some school boards have believed it necessary to maintain policies that racially and/or socioeconomically desegregate public schools, giving students from lower income neighborhoods opportunities to attend the same schools that children from higher income neighborhoods attend.
Maintaining diverse schools, however, has come at a cost to some families. Such policies have resulted in some children having to transfer schools, and significant numbers of children being bused to schools that are considerable distances away from their homes. There is no easy fix here. For the fundamental question that underlies this debate is what  is the purpose of public schools? This is the same question that I believe underlies the current school choice debate. It’s a tough question. Regardless of how its answered, new questions arise. Do the goals of maintaining diversity in public schools and ensuring that all children have the opportunity to attend high quality schools trump my individual desire to have my child attend my neighborhood school? Does my child have a right to a sound, basic education at the school of my choosing, or just at “a” school? These are questions that we must come to some consensus on. I highly suggest that we start to deal with these questions in a meaningful way, because it is important that we have at least similar ideas of what public schools are here for. I argue that that consensus is necessary for moving forward with education policy in a truly meaningful way.