New education commissioner making changes. Is action on charter schools next?

What role for charter schools? Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis speaks out

Wayne Lewis, newly appointed as interim education commissioner, said he 'had absolutely no idea' on what the board’s decision would be with appointing him, and speaks about his support for ‘high quality charter schools as a solution.’
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Wayne Lewis, newly appointed as interim education commissioner, said he 'had absolutely no idea' on what the board’s decision would be with appointing him, and speaks about his support for ‘high quality charter schools as a solution.’

Days after Kentucky's new interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis was hired by the state board of education, he has begun announcing changes.

Lewis, who told the Courier Journal in Louisville that he would apply for the permanent commissioner position, said he will speed the process for developing new graduation requirements. And he will visit Jefferson County Public Schools Wednesday and Thursday as part of an ongoing management audit to determine whether the state will take over that school district.

Will re-energizing Kentucky’s stalled charter school effort be his next step?

When charter school legislation was passed last year, the funding mechanism was put into temporary budget language. It generally calls for charter school students to get the same state funds as typical public school students, but it was not made permanent by the 2018 General Assembly.

Several groups that want to open charter schools — including the semi-private Model Laboratory School in Richmond— have said they won’t apply to school boards without the funding mechanism.

Lewis, a charter school advocate, told reporters last week that he was a proponent of “high quality charter schools," which he thought should be part of Kentucky's tool box for improving the performance of students and for providing parents, families and children with additional options.

“What the options are going forward in terms of whether or not charter schools can be created in Kentucky is a subject for conversation. It's a conversation that I intend to have with the department, that I intend to have with the board. There is nothing in statute that prohibits the creation of charter schools, so I expect to have a rich conversation and then get some good heads around the table and then figure out what that looks like," Lewis said.

Lewis said he did not know whether there was a path forward for charter schools without the funding mechanism.

"It's an issue I want to study," he said.

Joel Adams, executive director of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, said some people are making the argument that nothing additional needs to be done to enable a funding mechanism for public charter schools, because they all have to be funded equitably with typical public schools.

"We do need to get something clarified and stated..... but what that actually means and how that gets executed, that's where it gets iffy,” Adams said.

Lewis said Monday that his focus will include strengthening career and technical education, raising proficiency rates in Kentucky, which includes addressing a persistent achievement gap, and working on high school graduation requirements, making sure our graduation rates align with students having the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college and the workforce.

Lewis replaces former Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who resigned last week. Board chair Milton Seymore said Pruitt was not pushed out, as critics alleged.

Pruitt in a tweet said he "chose to resign rather than prolong the process" after a four-hour, closed-door meeting last Tuesday by the board. The state board included seven members that Gov. Matt Bevin had named just the day before.

The new board chairman said there was not a problem with Pruitt's performance, but members wanted to move in a new direction to accelerate student achievement. Board members hired Lewis, who had chaired the Kentucky Charter Schools Advisory Council and whom Bevin had also previously appointed as an advisor to the state education board, in the interim position.

Lewis carried out his plan to “hit the ground running” with two announcements on Friday.

Instead of Town Hall meetings on graduation requirements, as former commissioner Pruitt had planned, the Kentucky Department of Education now will collect recommendations online through an expanded survey. The change was intended to cut down on staff time and expense, and to speed up the process to schools have time to implement new rules for incoming freshmen in the fall of 2019, according to a news release.

“It is still critical to get input from parents, educators and others,” Lewis said. “But we want to be more aggressive with the timeline for developing and implementing more rigorous, meaningful, and flexible requirements for graduation. We intend to present the Kentucky Board of Education of Education with a framework for consideration and feedback in June, and have a draft regulation prepared for a first reading in August. Kentucky’s students, colleges and the business community cannot wait another year.”

Despite changes in the economy and the expectations of employers and postsecondary institutions, Kentucky’s minimum high school graduation requirements have not changed in more than six years, the release said.

In a second announcement, Lewis said he will visit Jefferson County Public Schools Wednesday and Thursday as part of an ongoing management audit. The management audit is designed to determine whether there is “a pattern of a significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness in the governance or administration of a school district.”

According to state law, the findings can result in a recommendation of the state either providing management assistance to Jefferson County schools or a recommendation of state management, which is taking over all aspects of the management of the school district formerly exercised by the local school board and the superintendent. Lewis said he has read the audit and supporting documents and wants to get a firsthand look at the district before he makes any recommendation to the Kentucky Board of Education based on the audit results.

“Whatever decision I make will be based on the facts and what is in the best interest of the children attending school in Jefferson County,” Lewis said. “The students’ well-being and opportunity to be successful will be the driving force behind how we move forward.”

Pruitt called for an audit of the district in February 2017 after data and information from a six-month management review of the district found “critically ineffective or inefficient management” within the Jefferson school district. The audit has been ongoing and before resigning his position last week week, Pruitt told reporters he was waiting for a report on the district’s collective bargaining agreement for certified employees before releasing the audit and issuing a recommendation.

Lewis has said while the analysis will provide evidence for any needed improvements in the district, it will not factor into his recommendation, which he expects to issue by the end of April.

Lewis is a University of Kentucky professor and most recently served as the executive director of educational programs with the Kentucky Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development. He has taken a leave of absence from UK and resigned his position with the Cabinet to serve as interim commissioner. Lewis' biography on the Kentucky Department of Education website said he has more than 15 years of experience in public education, serving professionally in public school districts, higher education institutions and state government.