Category Archives: Louisville

It’s Time to Focus on Children

I have now had the privilege of serving as Kentucky’s interim education commissioner for a little over a month. Understandably, I have been asked lots of questions. Most of the questions I have fielded in public settings have been similar. In fact, I can put them into two broad areas: “What is your plan for charter schools?” and “What kind of relationship do you intend to have with KEA/JCTA?”

Those questions are fine. As they are posed, I respond. But I have been disappointed with how infrequently I get public questions about students, student learning, student achievement, and student readiness. It’s no secret that student learning in Kentucky, as measured by standardized achievement examinations, has been stagnant at best, an in some cases has taken a step backward. Incredible racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps either remain unmoved or widen. And despite a pretty impressive state high school graduation rate, we continue to graduate approximately 40% of high school seniors who have attained neither college readiness nor career readiness benchmarks. Given how much work we have to do with improving student learning and how little progress we have made as of late, it surprises me and disappoints me that so little of our current discussion in public education centers on children’s learning.

Honestly, I think we forget sometimes that children and families are in fact the end-users of our public education system. Even more forgotten is the reality that for many years, we have not served large segments of our students as well as we should. According to Kentucky achievement data, students who have the best shot at success in our system are middle income and affluent White students without a disability, planning to attend a four-year postsecondary institution following high school graduation. If you are a low-income student, a student of color, a student with a disability, a student interested in pursuing a technical field that requires less than a four-year degree, or a student with some combination of those characteristics, our track record is pretty spotty. The achievement gap and the skills gap in Kentucky continue to be major barriers to student success and economic development.

To all the questions about charter schools: Public charter schools are simply one of many tools to be used in our public education system to help meet the needs of students we are not currently serving well; either because traditional approaches have not been adequate for meeting students’ unique learning needs, or because there is an insufficient supply of public school options available that align with students’ interests. Even with a healthy charter school sector, district schools will continue to be the vehicle we use for educating the vast majority of students in Kentucky, even in Jefferson and Fayette counties. To the questions about KEA and JCTA: Dialogue and partnership with teachers are critically important to achieving our collective goals for students. There is no more important element of our system than classroom teachers. High quality teachers are worth their weight in gold. But we cannot forget that unions are not the end-users of our public education system; Kentucky’s students and families are. Our decision making must be driven first and foremost by what’s best for children.

As I have spent time in Lexington and Louisville over the last few weeks, the private questions and concerns parents and grandparents share with me are much different from the questions reporters ask me. Most parents and grandparents I have talked with don’t ask me about charter schools or teachers unions. Instead, they express their deep concern about the quality of education their children and grandchildren are receiving, and they ask me to do whatever I can to help ensure their children are being well-prepared for their futures. I assure each one of them that I will do everything in my power to make sure that is the case, and I will.

Let’s take this opportunity to reset our focus and our conversation on improving learning for our children. With children as our focus, together, we can move mountains.

Public School Options Currently Available in Louisville Are Not Sufficient

WFPL reported this week that Jefferson County Public Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Donna Hargens has said that a strategy for fighting charter school support is pushing the idea that Jefferson County parents already have a form of school choice. First, you can’t take seriously the argument that there should be no charter schools in Jefferson County because sufficient choice already exists within the system. Jefferson County does in fact offer some programs and schools of choice for families, but the argument that the choices available to parents in Jefferson come close to meeting parents’ demand for high quality school options is simply false. And please don’t take my word for it, ask parents in Jefferson County.

Jefferson County parents will tell you that the JCPS portfolio of schools includes schools that have struggled mightily as well as schools that parents would be willing to pay tuition for their children to attend. Within JCPS, there are schools and programs of choice that parents try to use every available connection to get their children into, and there are other schools that very few parents with means would send their children to. The reality is that the general quality of the school your child attends in JCPS is a function of where you live in the school district, your social and political connections, your child’s academic ability, and sheer luck. There is always the possibility that you could live in a low-income neighborhood in Jefferson County, have no social or political connections to speak of, have a child with average academic ability, yet still have her accepted to one of the schools that parents fight over. But there’s also the possibility that you could win the lottery. We know that people do in fact win the lottery, but most of us will not. And getting your child into a school that you feel good about, ideally a high quality public school, shouldn’t be like playing the lottery.

So While Dr. Hargens is correct that there are some school options in JCPS, there are not nearly enough of them; and that’s not just my position, that’s the position of parents in Jefferson County. JCPS should welcome the creation of additional high quality school options for parents in Jefferson County, and they should be ready and willing to make the case to parents that the school options provided by JCPS are superior to anything else that’s available. The creation of high quality charter schools in Jefferson County would be a small step in the direction of forcing JCPS to compete for the tax payer dollars that fund public education for children in Jefferson County.