By John David Dyche
Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday, Ph. D., has two qualities essential for success in his demanding post: brains and guts. He has recently displayed both by boldly challenging powerful elements on the political left and the political right.
Holliday's top priority is improving the academic achievement of Kentucky students. Anyone who stands in the way -- liberal or conservative -- had better brace for battle.
He took on the liberal Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) for blocking efforts to fix the large number of failing schools in the state's largest county. And he is standing up for the Common Core state standards against misguided assaults by some conservatives.
Holliday may not be making many friends, but by fighting for students he may be doing more for Kentucky's future than anyone else in state government. But he needs support from citizens, legislators, and Governor Steve Beshear to succeed.
A South Carolina native, Holliday became Kentucky's fifth Commissioner of Education in July 2009. The Kentucky Board of Education appointed him, he serves at its pleasure, and he directs everyone employed in the Department of Education.
Holliday made headlines in February for using the term "academic genocide" to describe the lack of progress in improving low-performing Jefferson County schools. He said the state may soon have to take over some of them.
"Only 40 percent of the kids are even graduating from high school, and less than 20 percent are ready for college or careers," Holliday explained. "It's one thing to have a sense of urgency," Holliday added. "It's something entirely else to get the results and get more kids graduating from high school, or college- and career-ready or just passing eighth grade reading."
When JCTA squawked, Holliday delivered a detailed letter outlining ways the union uses its contract as an obstacle to saving the failing schools. Contract renegotiation is now underway, and Holliday's criticisms should help get a better deal to benefit students.
Jefferson County has some fantastic schools and great teachers. DuPont Manual High School ranked 50th on the Newsweek/The Daily Beast ranking of America's best high schools, and four others were in the top 2,000. But that makes the chronic underachievement in other JCPS schools even more of an outrage.
Holliday was equally correct to confront attacks some conservatives and tea party types are mounting against the Common Core. These rigorous math and language arts standards were developed, not by the federal government as some suggest, but by state governors and school officers with plenty of public input from faculty, college professors, and national education organizations.
After the General Assembly passed the landmark Senate Bill 1 in 2009, Kentucky adopted the Common Core in 2010. Forty-four states have done likewise, but some, like Indiana, show signs of succumbing to pressure primarily coming from the political right.
The standards are not a national curriculum, or even a state curriculum, but are expectations "to ensure college/career readiness and international competitiveness" of high school graduates. Curriculum decisions remain local, and the state has charted its own course for implementation and testing.
Much of the resistance arises from the Obama administration's unwise use of federal "Race to the Top" funds to bribe states to adopt better standards. It is understandable that some conservatives believe that anything Obama is for must be bad, but that is simply wrong regarding the Common Core.
The Republican National Committee recently put rank partisanship before the public interest by adopting an anti-Common Core resolution. But many more sensible and solid conservatives, including Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, and organizations like the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, strongly support the Common Core.
Writing in The Washington Post, conservative columnist Michael Gerson argued that, "In fighting the Common Core, some tea party activists have made common cause with elements of the progressive education blob that always resists rigor, measurement and accountability. This alliance increasingly constitutes the mediocrity caucus in American politics."
Holliday is part of an excellence caucus. Kentucky students are lucky to have him.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.