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Public Charter Schools Consideration in Kentucky: 2017 Legislative Session

As the Kentucky General Assembly enters serious consideration of a charter school bill in the 2017 legislative session, I have taken some time to reflect a bit on the charter school movement across the United States and in Kentucky. With the first charter school law passed in Minnesota now more than 25 years ago, charter schools are now  a permanent fixture in the public education firmament. And while there has been pretty significant variation across the states in the details of charter school laws and some variation in the academic performance of charter schools, very few individuals or groups now regard the additional public school options created by charter school legislation as being anything but positive.

Public charter schools, as schools of choice, provide parents with additional public school options to choose from. It’s really that simple. While teachers unions and some traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP continue to paint charter schools as something they are not, the demand for public charter schools has never been greater, as evidenced by their continually expanding waiting lists all over the country. When you get down to the truth of this debate, regardless of whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a student, or a concerned community member, there is absolutely no reason to reasonably object to charter schools coming to Kentucky.

First and foremost, charter schools are schools to which parents choose to send their children. Children are neither assigned nor required to attend charter schools. As charter schools provide parents with additional school options, these new or converted schools provide parents with an additional public school choice. Parents who are uninterested in charter schools overall or in any particular charter school simply enroll their kids elsewhere.

Second, our ever-changing economy and demands of the workforce mean education and training must become more specialized than ever before. Charter school legislation allows for the creation of additional public schools capable of providing that needed degree of specialization. And because these are schools of choice, parents are able to choose among the various schools and programs provided both in traditional public school districts and in public charter schools.

Third, if charter schools don’t perform, there is a mechanism built into charter school laws that allows states to close them down. Much different than some traditional public schools and school districts that have been permitted to under-serve children, families, and communities for generations, charters are granted for specific periods of time; and if charter schools fail to meet the performance standards articulated in the charter contract, charter authorizers are called upon to not renew or revoke charter contracts. Those of us who are advocates for high quality public charter schools have no interest in creating additional public schools that will not serve children well. Frankly, Kentucky has too many of those schools already.

Finally, it’s no secret that Kentucky’s traditional public school districts and schools have struggled mightily to improve the academic performance of traditionally underperforming students, including children from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities. In fact in some Kentucky school districts, rather than closing achievement gaps, gaps are actually widening. School struggles raising students’ performance is in large part the result to the dominant one-size-fits-all/mass production model of public education. With such a model, students that don’t have typical academic needs and professional aspirations usually end up under-served by a system that caters to the typical student. The problem is very few of our students are typical in terms of their academic needs or career aspirations, so providing more specialized approaches for reaching and serving students should be at the top of our list of education priorities. Research and experience have shown us that public charter schools have been incredibly effective with the very populations of students traditional public schools have struggled to engage most, and that charter boards and operators have used the flexibility provided through charter laws to create schools that deliver the very specialized instruction our increasingly diverse population of students need to be prepared for success in the workplace and in postsecondary education and training programs.

Kentucky parents should be pleased that after years of charter school legislation being stalled in the legislature for political reasons, the passage of a law that will all charter schools to be established in the Commonwealth seems imminent. If the Kentucky General Assembly does in fact pass a charter school law during the 2017 legislative session, it will be first and foremost a victory for Kentucky’s students and parents. A new tool will have been added to the tool belts of state and local education leaders for addressing the Commonwealth’s continuing challenges in education and workforce development.

My Dream for Public Schooling in Kentucky: Every School A School of Choice

Education policy advocates on either side of the school choice debate spend considerable time debating the merits of charter schools, traditional public schools, magnet schools, etc. But the truth is that parents don’t care what type of school their children attend. Most parents want their children to attend a school that meets their needs, and honestly, they couldn’t care less whether the school is a traditional public school, a magnet school, or a charter school.

While some might call me naive, my dream for Kentucky is every parent having the ability to choose schools for their children. That choice might mean she enrolls her child in the traditional public school within walking distance of her home. That choice might mean his child is bused across town to attend a performing arts magnet school. Or that choice might mean her child attends a local public charter school with a curricular emphasis on medical technology. Whatever their choice, parents should be assured that school of choice meets a minimum academic performance standard, in the same way that when we choose a restaurant, we are assured by government that our restaurant choice meets a minimum food safety standard.

Call me silly, but I believe every public school in Kentucky should be one that parents choose for their children. No child or family should be trapped in a school that cannot or will not meet her academic needs.

The Washington State Supreme Court’s Charter School Ruling: What it Means and What it Doesn’t

If you have paid much attention to school choice news from across the country, you’ve heard that the Washington State Supreme Court delivered a monumental ruling on September 4th regarding the state’s new charter school law. In a 6-3 decision, the state’s high court ruled that the state’s charter school law (Proposition I-1240) violates the Washington State Constitution. At issue was whether charter schools in Washington may be characterized as “common schools”. This is important in Washington because the state’s constitution requires that state public school funding only be used to support common schools. In its decision, the Court deemed that because the boards of Washington’s charter schools are appointed and not elected, they may not be considered common schools, and thus are ineligible to be funded by common school funding.  

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have charter schools in operation. The nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling marked the first time a state court has found charter school funding be be in violation of a state constitution. So as you can imagine, the ruling has sent shock waves through the charter school and school choice communities, not only in Washington, but across the United States.

What Does the Future Hold for Charter Schools in Washington State?

While charter school advocates and parents of children attending the new charter schools in Washington are working around the clock to save their new schools, in the short term, the likelihood of saving them is slim. While fundraising efforts of charter school supporters in Washington and nationally have been valiant, it”s not likely to be enough. Further, if the schools are not tax-payer funded, in my estimation at least, they may no longer be considered to be public schools.

There is no appeal’s process for the court’s decision. The Washington Supreme Court has spoken and their word is final. Just as with the U.S. Supreme Court and matters relating to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington Supreme Court is as far as it goes in Washington. In short, the Washington state constitution says what the Washington Supreme Court says it says.

All is not lost, however; at least not in the long term. Charter school advocates in Washington intend to revisit the state’s law. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling was that charter schools in the state cannot be considered common schools because their boards are appointed and not elected. Charter advocates are now gearing up for another ballot initiative (Washington’s charter school law came as the result of a ballot initiative) which would amend the law to have charter schools boards as elected rather than appointed. Such a change would likely/maybe/possibly satisfy the Washington Supreme Court. As we saw with this case, however, the Washington Education Association is an extremely formidable foe for charter school advocates. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Implications for Charter Schools Across the U.S.

Outside of Washington state, education leaders, and policymakers, and parents are asking what the implications of the Washington Supreme Court’s decision might be for charter school policy and charter schools in other states. While the Washington state ruling does not apply to charter schools or charter school laws in other states, I do expect to see teachers unions lead (with renewed vigor) campaigns in other states to challenge the constitutionality of charter schools. My guess is the vast majority of those efforts will be unsuccessful, but there is definitely the possibility of success in some places. Charter school laws are different from state to state, and state constitutions have different provisions from state to state. Further complicating the issue is the reality that state courts have different political leanings from state to state; some which lean Right and tend to be more supportive of choice policies, and some which lean Left and tend to be much less supportive of school choice policy.

In short, the Washington ruling doesn’t signal the beginning of the end for charter schools in the U.S. As I’ve said many times and in many places before, charter schooling is now a permanent fixture of the public education landscape in the U.S. The ruling does, however, highlight a potential strategy for charter school opponents in other states. The politics of school choice has always been interesting, and it promises to remain that way.

Kentucky’s ‘Gap Students’ Classification Must Be Eliminated

Since at least 2012, store the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has classified students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students; a classification which has filtered down to school districts and schools, so that teachers and administrators across the state commonly refer to students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students. KDE’s rationale for the classification of students in this way is that the academic achievement of these groups of students is typically significantly lower than that of White students, leaving significant achievement gaps. What KDE misses, however, is that gaps refers to the distances between the achievement scores of subgroups of students; gaps do not (or should not) refer to any specific groups of students. Referring to any group of students as gap students is at the very least extremely unprofessional and inappropriate. I argue that such labeling is additionally incredibly insulting, hurtful, and even harmful to children.

It is beyond my understanding why anyone would think such a labeling convention would be a good thing. Achievement gaps are ugly. They represent failures on the part of adults to get learning right for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. What achievement gaps do not represent is wrongdoing or shortcomings on the part of children. The academic achievement scores of children of color at levels significantly below those of White children is not a function of children of color having any less capacity to learn than White children. Why, then, would KDE attach such a derogatory label to children?

If we’re honest about it, the gap label would be more appropriately applied to teachers, schools, and school districts than to children. There are teachers and schools that we know for certain do more to exacerbate achievement gaps than to eliminate them. There are teachers and schools in Kentucky that are either unwilling or unable to meet the specific learning needs of culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse learners. Perhaps KDE should consider labeling those teachers and schools as gap teachers and gap schools. But to attach such a disparaging label to children is inaccurate and inexcusable.

I do not believe there was malicious intent with the creation of the gap category of students. In fact, I believe KDE officials’ intentions were probably noble, but even with the best of intentions, the classification of students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students is highly problematic and must be changed immediately.

The NEA’s Call for Duncan’s Resignation: Latest Strike in a Battle the NEA will Lose

The leadership of the National Educational Association (NEA) is mad, and on July 4th that anger reached a boiling point when delegates passed a new business item calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While historically, teachers unions including the NEA have been staunch supporters of Democrat administrations, the relationship between the NEA and the Obama administration has been a strained one, largely because of the Obama administration’s support of key elements of an education reformist agenda which includes financial support for the expansion of charter schools, the continuance of the DC school voucher program, reform of teacher evaluation to include student performance, and most notably now, reform of teacher tenure and seniority rules. The Obama administration’s support for such reforms has earned President Obama and Secretary Duncan a place on the NEA’s ‘not so nice’ list. Officially, the new business item stated that it was necessary to call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation because of the U.S. Department of Education’s “failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.”

Duncan has flat out dismissed the NEA’s call for his resignation. In a recent AP article, Duncan is quoted as saying, “I always try to stay out of local union politics. I think most teachers do too.” Though brief, Duncan’s comment is clever dig at the union. Duncan is making the claim, which I largely agree with, that although the NEA’s leadership claims to be the voice of teachers, most teachers are not involved in the development of the union’s policy agenda and are not typically well-informed on the inner-workings and maneuvering of the union’s leadership. I go even further than Duncan and assert that many teachers, particularly younger teachers, are not supportive of the policy agenda, policy stances, and tactics of the NEA. And for that reason, I am very careful to distinguish between the voice the NEA’s leadership and the voice of teachers; I am convinced that on a variety of important policy issues their voices are not in harmony.

This call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation is the NEA’s latest move in a battle that’s gone on for about a decade now; a battle that in the end, the NEA is sure to lose. Democratic administration’s have historically been the NEA’s allies, holding off the progressive education reform ideas of conservatives. That day has passed. Much of the education reform agenda is supported and even advocated for by growing numbers of Democrats and political independents. If the next president elected is a Republican the NEA is sunk. They don’t stand a chance of reversing the education reform tide which includes the expansion of school choice, tenure reform (and in some states tenure elimination), teacher evaluation based in part on student performance, and tying teachers’ pay to their performance. But even if the next president is a Democrat, the likelihood of that Democrat being from the extreme liberal end of the party is none; it will not happen. Whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, s/he will have to live and lead from a more moderate than extreme position; and it is the more moderate Democrats, or neo-liberals, that are becoming more and more supportive of the education reform agenda that the NEA is fighting against.

In the end, the NEA will lose this battle. Education policy does have a tendency to shift somewhat like a pendulum, but there are pieces of the current education reform agenda that are here to stay. Charter schools and public school choice aren’t going anywhere. Public school choice will become central to public schooling, everywhere. Teachers will be evaluated at least in part based on the performance of their students; what that measurement will look like will vary from state to state and may change over time, but the days of teacher evaluation not having a student performance component are soon to be over. Tenure for teachers will go away in some places and will look radically different in most other places. School administrators will have increased authority with the hiring and removal of teachers. The days of collective bargaining agreements protecting ineffective senior teachers while more junior effective teachers are dismissed will be ending very soon. Teaching will no longer be a profession where you can go a job pretty easily, join the union, get tenure for sticking around for four years, and have a safe position for the rest of your career.

The NEA is fighting for relevance and survival. ‘The organization’s leadership knows that Secretary Duncan won’t consider resigning based on their call, and the fact that the largest teachers union in the country can call for the Secretary of Education’s resignation and most Americans won’t even take their call seriously is an indicator of the organization’s waning influence on educational leadership and educational policy. I do believe there is a future for the NEA, but not as a labor union. Teachers are not labor. Teachers are professionals. My hope is that the NEA’s new leadership will take the opportunity during this time of transition for teachers and public schooling to reform itself into the world-class professional association that America’s teachers need and deserve.

All Public Schools in New Orleans will be Charters in 2014-2015 School Year

Something significant happened with the closing of the 2013-2014 school year in New Orleans. The Orleans Parish School Board closed its remaining traditional public schools, for good. That means beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, all public schools operating in the city of New Orleans will be public charter schools. In scope, the change is not as grand as it initially sounds. There were only a handful of traditional public schools remaining in operation in New Orleans. Over 90% of children in New Orleans already attended charter schools, making public schooling in New Orleans the largest urban education reform experiment in the nation. But there is something incredibly significant about the fact that there will be no traditional public schools in a major American city next year. Charter schools had their beginnings in 1991 with the passage of the nation’s first charter school law in Minnesota, and the subsequent opening of the first charter schools in 1992. But I don’t believe school reformers in Minnesota  or the father of the charter school concept, Ray Budde, imagined that 13 years after the passage of Minnesota’s law, there would be a major American city where all public schools would be charter schools. Undoubtedly, the transformation of public schooling in New Orleans was sped along by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina which destroyed the vast majority of the city’s schools. But even prior to Katrina, the New Orleans Public Schools were in complete disarray; by many accounts the city’s school system was academically, financially, and ethically bankrupt. The state had already been busy devising plans for a take-over of the city’s failing schools. In many ways, Katrina just provided the opportunity for massive reform. And that large-scale education reform begun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and continued even to today has fundamentally transformed public schooling in New Orleans.

Problems do remain, however. Much work remains to be done in New Orleans. Many kinks in the system have yet to be worked out. But the numbers are clear; current academic performance for students attending public schools in New Orleans has far exceeded performance levels for the city’s public school students prior to Hurricane Katrina. And according to a recent report by the Times Picayune, 45% of New Orleans voters say the schools are improving. I don’t remember seeing such a large percentage of New Orleanians who believed schools were moving in the right direction.

Choice is very clearly now a central tenet of public education in New Orleans. Parents have many more public school options than they have ever had before. What must continue now is a redoubled effort to ensure that the options available to parents are in fact high quality charter school options. Charter authorizers in New Orleans must hold their schools accountable for academic performance. Performance accountability is central to the charter school concept. That means, first, maintaining the highest standards for granting charters to applicants. Second, schools that fail to perform at or above the agreed upon levels of academic performance must be improved immediately or closed down, with no exceptions. We cannot allow charter schools to become the traditional public schools of pre-Katrina New Orleans; schools that failed generations of New Orleans families with no accountability. Finally, that means giving high performing charter schools and charter networks in the city the opportunity to expand, and recruiting the highest performing charter operators from around the country to New Orleans.

Efforts to ensure that parents’ school choices are in fact high quality choices are already underway. There are many individuals and groups in the city that are engaged in that work. One of those groups has been New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO). NSNO has invested heavily in innovation in the New Orleans charter school sector and the expansion of charter school operators that have proven to be effective. That kind of work must continue with even greater intensity. New Orleans has the unique opportunity to be not just a grand experiment in urban education reform, but to become the model for large-scale urban education reform in America. The fate of New Orleans and its children are dependent on state and educational leaders’ resolve and commitment to get charter schooling right in New Orleans.

Marty Solomon’s Misleading Op-Ed on Charter Schools in Kentucky

I was quite disappointed to read Marty Solomon’s op-ed
published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday June 2nd. Dr. Solomon made
the argument that charter schools would be bad for Kentucky and in his words, “Our
legislature is wise to continue to reject their creation and to refuse to
weaken our public schools.” I do hope that Dr. Solomon’s intentions were good,
and that he, like me, wants to see improvement in learning for children in
Kentucky. I don’t have reason to believe otherwise. But regardless of his
intentions, there are quite a few problems with the argument he puts forward
for keeping charter schools out of Kentucky. The obvious difference between our
positions is that I support the passage of legislation in Kentucky to allow for
the creation of high quality public charter schools. But it is not our
difference in position on charter schools that troubles me; what troubles me is
the inaccuracies and myths he puts forward which only serve to mislead
Kentuckians.

Dr. Solomon’s op-ed is ripe with inaccuracies and
over-generalizations. I will identify and discuss a few here which I believe are
most problematic. First, and most disappointing, he seeks to mislead
Kentuckians into believing that charter schools are not public schools, when in
fact there is no credible argument against the fact that charter schools are in
fact public schools. In Dr. Solomon’s words:

Although advocates
like to call them public schools because they receive public funding, charters
are really private schools, run by private individuals or corporations. They
are completely outside the public school system as far as teacher requirements
or acceptance of handicapped kids.

If charter schools were not public schools there is no way 42
states would be allowed to allocate state and federal funds to public charter
schools in the same way funds are allocated to traditional public schools. In
the city of New Orleans, approximately 90% of children attend public charter
schools. Does that mean the vast majority of children in New Orleans now attend
private schools? Of course not. While variation exists in state charter school
laws, across the states, all charter schools are public schools.

I find Dr. Solomon’s misleading of Kentuckians in this fashion to be
unfortunate. And the argument that charter schools in Kentucky would be outside the public school system regarding
teacher requirements or the provision of services for children with special
needs is flat out not true. Any reading of the charter school legislation that has been put forward in Kentucky shows his statements to be untrue. To read Rep. Brad
Montell’s (R-Shelbyville) charter school bill filed in the 2014 session of the Kentucky legislature please click
here.

Also in a particularly misleading fashion, Dr. Solomon makes
the argument that charter schools in Kentucky would take funding away from
traditional public schools. In his words:

But they are funded by
taking money from public schools. This idea was quite attractive to many state
legislators who eschewed tax hikes to fund vouchers, but did not object to
taking the money away from public schools.

What Dr. Solomon fails to say to the reader, however, is that
since charter schools are public schools, charter schools in Kentucky would be
funded in the same way every other public school is funded; charter schools
would receive a per pupil allocation based on the number of students that
attend the school. What he further fails to relay is that the only students who
would attend charter schools are those whose parents enroll them in one. The
commonwealth allocates state funding to schools based on the number of students
attending a school. If a parent decided to take her child out of Henry Clay
High School and enroll him in the charter school of her choice, the funding for
that student would follow him to the charter school. Please note that the
arrangement I speak of is no different than a child leaving Henry Clay High
School and enrolling in East Jessamine High School; the state funding for the
student would follow the student to East Jessamine. In that instance, would Dr.
Solomon argue that East Jessamine has weakened Henry Clay by robbing it of
funding? He most likely would not. Or what if a parent decided to take his
daughter out of Henry Clay and enroll her in The Lexington School. While The
Lexington School would not receive state funding for the student, those funds would surely no longer be allocated to Fayette
County. In that case, would Dr. Solomon argue that the Lexington School is
responsible for weakening Fayette County Public Schools? He most likely would
not, and he should not. Whether a child leaves Henry Clay to attend East
Jessamine, The Lexington School, or a public charter school, what has happened
is a parent made a decision to send her child to a school that she believes
best serves his needs. Would Dr. Solomon then argue that the parent is
responsible for weakening Fayette County Public Schools? I don’t know whether
he would or not, but I certainly don’t see it that way. I find the suggestion
that a school should receive state-funding for a student who no longer attends
the school to be pretty ludicrous. And I find it even more problematic that a
traditional public school would want to hold students hostage if their parents
want to enroll them somewhere else.

I would like to see opponents of charter school legislation
in Kentucky state their opposition to charter schools with honesty instead of
putting forward arguments and myths intended to mislead Kentuckians who only
truly care about getting the best possible education for their children. The
truth is that charter school laws vary significantly from state to state. Some
states have charter school laws that have produced high quality public charter
school options for families. Other states have not written thoughtful charter
school laws, and the result of those poorly crafted laws has been charter
schools that perform at or below the levels of traditional public schools,
serious deficiencies in charter school performance monitoring and
accountability. Because Kentucky has yet to pass a charter school law,
lawmakers have the benefit of learning from the successes and failures of other
states. I believe Rep. Brad Montell’s charter school bill incorporates many of
the lessons that we have learned since the passage of the nation’s first charter
school legislation in 1991 in Minnesota. The stakes are too high for too many
children in Kentucky to continue with these political games. Let’s base our
conversation on the charter school law that is actually being proposed in
Kentucky.

Kentucky Senate Hears Charter School Bill Today

This afternoon the Kentucky
Senate Education Committee holds a hearing for Sen. Mike Wilson’s (R-Bowling
Green) charter school bill (SB 211). I am attending the Annual Symposium of the
Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) in New Orleans today, so
unfortunately, I will not be able to testify. Testifying in support of the passage of strong charter
school legislation in Kentucky will be Dr. Terry Brook of Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA), Dr. Lisa Grover of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and
Dave Adkisson of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. I do regret that I am not
able to attend the hearing today, but I decided that I would send just a few
thoughts electronically on the importance of passing strong charter school
legislation in Kentucky.

For the last four years, I have
been working for the passage of legislation in Kentucky that would allow for
the creation of high quality public charter schools. I am not a Kentucky native, but I love Kentucky and it has become my home. I have been a part of this
fight for charter schools in our state because too many children in Kentucky don’t have access to high quality
schools simply because of where they live. In Kentucky, as in most places in
our country, living in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood and not
having the means to move to a higher performing school district or pay tuition
at a private or parochial school, often means your children are sentenced to
school that does not meet their academic needs. When talking about the fight
for charter schools in Kentucky, I always intentionally use the language “high
quality charter schools.” I do so because it is no secret that some states have
done a much better job of writing charter school legislation than others. Since
the passage of the nation’s first charter school legislation in Minnesota in
1991, we have learned a lot of charter school policy; and now having charter
school legislation in 42 states and the District of Columbia, Kentucky has the
exciting opportunity to take what we have learned about charter school policy
and incorporate that into a bill that would lead to additional high quality
public school options for some of Kentucky’s most economically disadvantaged
families. But the details of policy matter tremendously.

So, here are just a few things I
would like our legislators to keep in mind as they consider charter school
legislation for Kentucky. If charter school legislation is to result in the
creation of high quality public charter schools for our children, the following
elements MUST be a part of the bill:

  • ·        
    Charter school legislation must hold charter
    schools to high standards of accountability. That means opening a charter
    school in Kentucky can be no easy feat. Applicants for Kentucky charters must
    be heavily scrutinized, and only groups with extraordinary plans and
    exceptional expertise should be granted permission to open a charter school.
    Then, once a charter school is open, it must be held to high accountability
    standards; so high a standard in fact, that charter schools that do not perform
    to the levels of performance agreed upon in the charter will be closed down. In
    states where charter schools are working, that’s what’s happening. Charter
    schools that don’t perform are being closed. That’s the way charter schools are
    supposed to work. Charter schools are to be provided with a greater degree of
    flexibility and autonomy in exchange for higher expectations for performance.
  • ·        
    There must be multiple authorizers for Kentucky
    charter schools. Limiting authorization for charter schools to local boards of
    education would ensure that charter schools never get off the ground in
    Kentucky. Most local board of education will be resistant to authorizing a
    public charter school in its vicinity. Parents that are unhappy with the
    quality of education their children are receiving in a traditional public
    school will look for alternative high quality public school options. If that
    parent resides in Jefferson County and there is a public charter school option
    that meets the needs of her child, she will enroll her child in the charter
    school. Jefferson County will see that as dollars walking out the door. I see
    that as empowering parents to make decisions about the quality of education
    their children receive. School districts should not see SEEK dollars as
    belonging to the school district. SEEK dollars follow children to whatever
    public school they attend. SEEK dollars are for children, not for school
    districts. I hope Kentucky legislators think of SEEK dollars in the same way that I
    do. It is no secret
    that local boards of education in Kentucky have not been supportive of charter
    school legislation. Passing charter school legislation but then giving complete
    authority to local boards to authorize charter schools only sets the policy up
    to fail.
  • ·        
    Kentucky charter schools must be freed from
    constraints of collective bargaining agreements. The collective bargaining
    agreement in Jefferson County constrains schools leaders in ways that inhibit
    school improvement. If you don’t believe me, engage a Jefferson County Public Schools
    principal in a closed door, off the record conversation, and ask her to list
    the ways the JCTA contract gets in the way of her doing what is best for
    children in her school. She will probably start with all the ways the JCTA
    contract constrains her ability to select, develop, and evaluate staff at her
    school. The JCTA contract is a problem; it does not put children first.
    Requiring Kentucky charter schools to comply with the terms of the JCTA contract
    would tie the arms of Kentucky charter school leaders in unreasonable and unproductive
    ways.
  • ·        
    Charter school legislation in Kentucky must
    allow for both start-up charter schools and conversion charter schools. In
    other words, the bill must allow for a group of parents, teachers, community
    member to apply to start a charter school from the ground up, as well as allow
    for the conversion of existing traditional public schools into charter schools.
    While there has been some success across the country with conversion charter
    schools, the research is clear that many of the highest performing charters of
    those that have been created from scratch.

A Call for Better Prepared High School Graduates: Cases Louisiana and Kentucky

In an op-ed that appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune
today, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, John White, challenged
Louisiana’s education system to do a better job of preparing the state’s high
school graduates for college and careers. White, while acknowledging Louisiana’s
success with increasing high school graduation rates, asserted that changes in
the Louisiana, national, and global economies require that students pursue some
form post-secondary education and/or training to be competitive for jobs and
make a wage sufficient for supporting a family. White referenced less-than-desirable
statistics for Louisiana students with earning college degrees; reporting that “of
100 high school students in our state, on average only 19 end up graduating
from a university six years after leaving high school.” White asserted, “when we
award a high school diploma, it should mean that the student is prepared to
succeed in college or in the workplace, no questions asked.” And he is
absolutely right.

In Kentucky as well, we must continue with increasing the
number of young Kentuckians who graduate from high school. According to the
Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), Kentucky had a 2012 Average Freshman
Graduation Rate (AFGR) of 78.8%, up 3.8 percentage points from 2008 when the
AFGR was 75%. Shameful achievement gaps remain in Kentucky with graduation rates. African American students in 2012 had an AFGR of 72.1%; up 5.3
percentage points from 2008 (66.8%), but 7.9 percentage points lower than the
AFGR of White students in Kentucky in 2012 (80.0%). These shameful gaps must be eliminated. Achievement gaps are an ugly stain on the education system of our state.

But just as Superintendent White called for better
preparation of high school graduates in Louisiana, we must ensure that a high
school diploma in Kentucky consistently means something. Currently, I don’t
believe we can say with any confidence that every student earning a Kentucky high school
diploma—whether in Paducah or in Maysville—is well-prepared for
college and/or career. I believe some students leave Kentucky high schools as
prepared as any student in the U.S. Other students, unfortunately, leave
Kentucky high schools with the same diploma, but without the preparation
necessary for success in college or career. It is time to start talking
seriously about quality control in Kentucky. What does it mean to have a high diploma
from a Kentucky high school? What should postsecondary institutions and
employers be able to reasonably expect from any graduate of a Kentucky high school?

Kentucky’s new end-of-course (EOC) assessment program is a
significant step in that direction, but much more must be done. Currently,
Kentucky only has EOC assessments for English II, Algebra II, Biology, and
History; and in most schools EOCs account for no more than 20% of a student’s
final course grade. So theoretically, a student could show little to no mastery
of course content on the EOC and still pass the course with a pretty good
grade. This would not be so problematic if students’ grades were in fact
usually based on their mastery of course content, but grades typically include
all sorts of additional things like effort, enthusiasm, attendance,
citizenship, etc.

There is no way around it, testing must be an integral part of establishing
common expectations for high school graduates across the state, but we should not rely solely on
testing for quality control. There must be a norming of academic expectations
both within and across Kentucky school districts. What Ms. Smith expects of a
student to pass her Algebra II course in Woodford County should be very similar
to the expectations Mr. Jones has of his Algebra II students in Wolfe County.
After all, students in Woodford County get the same diploma as students in
Wolfe County; and these schools’ graduates will apply for the same jobs and for seats in the same
post-secondary institutions.

In summary, just as in Louisiana, there is much work to be
done in Kentucky. We must continue to make progress with improving the
graduation rates for students in our state. We must eliminate the shameful
achievement gaps that remain between students of color and White students in
Kentucky. And we must begin to work on quality control for Kentucky high school
graduates; ensuring that when a student leaves a Kentucky high school with a diploma,
that diploma means that the student has been prepared for success in college
and/or career. That is our charge. I believe we are up for the task. Let’s get
it done Kentucky!

Crying Stories

**This week I am attending the International Symposium on
Educational Reform hosted by the University of Jyväskylä
in Finland.**

Yesterday I got a dose of
inspiration unlike any that I have had in some time. It came from two graduate
students at the University of Jyväskylä, both from China. The first was a young
lady from Shanghai in her first year of doctoral study. Her presentation was on social justice reform in the Chinese education system. She highlighted
specific areas of injustice and inequity in Chinese education, including the
gross inequities in the quality of education available to the Chinese people
based on the region of the country they live in. These inequities, she argued,
have come more into public discussion as a result of Chinese migrant workers moving
east to cities like Shanghai in order to find work. In many instances, however,
these workers have found that their children are not permitted to attend
schools in the cities past the nine years of compulsory education. In order to
go further, Chinese law requires that these families return to western China
where their homes are registered; also where the quality of education is much
poorer and where there are fewer jobs. The second student fully supported the
findings of the presentation, and added that in West China (his home) there
were many “crying stories”; stories of pain, strife, and sorrowful conditions for
children and their families.

I believe what these two students
are doing takes an incredible amount of courage. The questions they are asking,
the norms they are challenging, and the positions they are taking have historically
not been received warmly in China. But both of these students are motivated and
even driven by the dire conditions that so many children and families in their
homeland face. These students inspire me.

As I think about my own life and
career, I have collected more than my fair share of crying stories as well. I
am not speaking of nearly the same conditions that my Chinese friends are
acquainted with, but all the same, I am well-acquainted with the conditions in
American society that limit the life possibilities of children based on their
zip code, family background, race/ethnicity, gender, etc. My prayer is that the
crying stories that I have collected and continue to collect right here in the
USA will forever haunt me and drive me to be the agent for change in our
education system that I am called to be.