DYCHE | Another Plea for Charter Schools - WDRB 41 Louisville News

DYCHE | Another Plea for Charter Schools

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By John David Dyche
WDRB Contributor 

By a vote of 6-1, with only vice chairman David Jones, Jr. dissenting, the Jefferson County Board of Education just passed its list of legislative priorities for the upcoming session of the Kentucky General Assembly. One of those priorities is to oppose "the use of public dollars to finance public charter schools, or to support programs that fund non-public schools, such as vouchers or tuition tax credits."

That very same day, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported on results of state testing that showed Jefferson County contained seven of the state's bottom 10 schools in reading, six of the state's bottom 10 schools in language mechanics, five of the state's bottom 10 schools in social studies, and three of the state's bottom 10 schools in science.

Charter schools are, according to the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, "unique public schools that have the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for improving student achievement."  Kentucky is one of only eight states in the nation that does not allow charter schools.

With such abysmally poor performance over such a long period, the Jefferson County Public Schools should be open to anything that might improve student achievement. That is why Kentucky's Commissioner of Education, Terry Holliday, risked the wrath of the state and Jefferson County teachers' unions to back a bill in the last legislative session that would have allowed stakeholders to convert Jefferson County's poorest performing schools into charter schools.

"We've got to try something new in our low-achieving schools, because too many of our kids are failing," Holliday said. The bill to let parents or teachers merely try charter schools in persistently low-achieving schools passed the Republican-controlled state Senate, but died in a committee of the Democratically-controlled state House.

In a recent speech to the National Charter Schools Conference, the U. S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, an Obama appointee, said that, "high-performing charters have irrefutably demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels."  Local advocates for such children want them to have that chance here.

A recent rally organized by the Black Alliance for Educational Options in support of charter schools gave voice to frustration within parts of the African-American community whose students are often trapped in poor performing schools with no options. Charter schools are not a panacea, and are only part of a broader approach to better outcomes, but have helped minority students in many other places.

The stubborn resistance from the Jefferson County Board of Education, the teachers' unions, and Democrats in the Kentucky General Assembly to even trying charter schools on a limited, experimental basis is an example of the status quo mentality that holds back Kentucky, and Jefferson County in particular, in so many respects. 

Recent elections that added one teachers' union pet to the school board and returned another will not help education reform in the state's largest city. Lots of improperly placed signs and a big polling place presence helped push these union candidates across the electoral finish line.

That is too bad, especially since there has been some real recent progress under the leadership of superintendent Donna Hargens. State auditor Adam Edelen gave her good marks for making reforms after his recent audit revealed serious problems like too much spending on administrative salaries and insufficient understanding of budget and financial information.

With about 100,000 students and a budget of over $1.3 billion, Jefferson County Public Schools spends about $13,000 per student annually. Are taxpayers and, more importantly, parents and students, getting our money's worth?

Jefferson County Public Schools can boast many truly brave, dedicated, and outstanding administrators and teachers. There are some great schools where students receive excellent instruction from first-rate faculty.

But there are still too many schools where the opposite is the case. Readers will rightly remind me that parents and students bear some of the responsibility, but in too many Louisville schools they simply do not stand a chance.

Unfortunately, any hint of charter schools is almost certainly destined to die another death at the hands of archaic Frankfort Democrats in the upcoming legislative session. They will tout half-measures and superficial imitations of true charters to claim that they support innovation, but everyone from the business community desperate for a better educated workforce to minority groups determined to help their children escape from failing schools and find better opportunities, knows the real truth.

So why not try at least a few true charter schools? It is practically impossible to imagine that the outcomes could be any worse than they have been for years, indeed decades, at some Jefferson County schools.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is jddyche@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.

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