As he continued to advocate for a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky's interim education commissioner offered a more positive assessment of public schools in Fayette County at his first state board meeting Wednesday.
Wayne Lewis, who became interim commissioner in April, noted in a written report to the state board that he met with Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk in May.
"I have a lot of respect for the work that Manny is doing in Fayette County,” Lewis told the Herald-Leader in an interview. “We talked a little about some of the things that he wants to accomplish in Fayette County. I told him a little bit about what I want to accomplish here. “
Lewis told the board Wednesday that among his priorities is to close the racial, ethnic and socio-economic achievement gaps in Kentucky, to increase young learners' proficiency in reading and math and improve high school graduation requirements..
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"We can no longer have a public education system where we issue high school diplomas to students, first and foremost, who we know can not read and we do that currently. We will not issue high school diplomas to kids we have not taught to do basic mathematics. I believe that it is unethical and immoral ," said Lewis.
In the Herald-Leader interview, Lewis said he and Caulk share a "deep interest" in "wanting to tackle the achievement of traditionally underserved kids, low income kids and kids of color.
"More than anything that's what our conversation centered around. Thinking about strategies and then also goals that we want to set for ourselves. I'm looking forward to being able to work with him. I think there's a lot of opportunities for partnership with Fayette County " and the Kentucky Department of Education.
The Jefferson County Board of Education is appealing Lewis' recommendation that the school district be managed by the state. The recommendation was made after an extensive audit of that district. Lewis has said that Jefferson Superintendent Marty Pollio would retain every day control with monitoring from the state. Louisville residents appeared before the state board Wednesday to speak against the takeover.
Before Caulk was hired in 2015 and under a former Commissioner, Fayette County district officials faced state action if the district did not improve its support of low achieving schools. But in a subsequent state review under Caulk as superintendent, the state found that the district was capable of leading improvement.
Caulk on Wednesday said he and Lewis “share a common moral imperative about closing the opportunity, access and achievement gap for our most vulnerable children and we recognize that to go farther faster, we must go together.”
“I was able to give him additional information about the work that has been going on in Fayette County — where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going under the leadership of our school board — in terms of our successes and the opportunities that lie ahead,” Caulk said.
“I shared with him, as I said during my first week on the job here in Fayette County, the biggest challenge for superintendents in Kentucky is that we don’t have all the tools to intervene as quickly as I would like to ... and we discussed possible ways to accelerate change.”
Lewis, a charter school proponent and University of Kentucky professor, was hired in April after Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure from a board that been appointed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. His recommendation for state management of Jefferson County has been criticized as a political move, but he said Wednesday that it was necessary.
Lewis also talked on Wednesday about the future of charter schools in Kentucky. He told the Herald-Leader that he had identified at least one way that Kentucky's stalled charter school movement could move forward.
Under a 2017 state law that permitted charter schools for the first time in Kentucky, local school board members must review and approve or deny applications from people who want to open charter schools. No charter school has opened yet in Kentucky. Lewis has been investigating whether there is still a path for charter schools in Kentucky given that the Kentucky General Assembly did not approve a permanent funding mechanism for them in 2018.
"One certain path is ... that the law allows for a local board that wants to convert one of its schools to a public charter school ," said Lewis. "While there is not a funding mechanism in place in statute, there is absolutely nothing preventing that local board from working out the funding arrangement to fund that public charter school."
"My hope is that we would have one or a couple of local boards that would look at this situation and say this could be a tool that we could use to accomplish some of our goals," Lewis said.
He said he knows of no local boards considering converting traditional schools to charter schools "but as I explore what the possibilities would be for charter schools in Kentucky, that's the first one that stands out."
Charter schools have been a topic of debate between candidates for the second district seat on the Fayette County Public Schools board.
The second district includes northern Fayette County. The seat is open because after seven years on the Fayette County Public Schools Board, Doug Barnett decided not to seek re-election when his term ends this year.
Murphy is staunchly against charter schools.
"Our first priority needs to be funding and providing resources for the current schools in our district, I don't see the justification for a charter school organization even submitting an application to us to open a charter school in Fayette County, justifying that, before we get our own house in order," he told the Herald-Leader. .
In response, Mulder said, "I have a concern with someone who has that kind of polarized thinking. I do have a concern with someone who doesn't want to follow the law, to looking at information and making decisions based on what's best for students."
"I'm in favor of parents having choices of different kinds of schools," Mulder said, noting she likes that the Fayette school district offers several different school models.
"Because charter school legislation has been passed, I'm in favor of looking at those applications with an open mind of how they might be good for some students and parents," Mulder said.
Murphy said as a member of the Fayette County schools in a district with limited dollars, his priority would be providing resources and strengthening schools in the district, "not funneling our limited tax dollars to charter school corporations hoping to experiment with our students."
"Evidence is both overwhelming and clear: charter schools do not enhance educational opportunities in communities; perform no better, if not worse, than neighboring public schools; and often magnify inequities," he said.