Opinion

The answers for Kentucky schools aren’t in Finland or Singapore. ‘You just have to go to Beaumont.’

Are charter schools good? Hear from UK’s new education dean

Julian Vasquez Heilig, new dean of the UK College of Education, questions research on charter schools.
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Julian Vasquez Heilig, new dean of the UK College of Education, questions research on charter schools.

Last year, University of Kentucky professor Wayne Lewis took an unpaid leave of absence from the College of Education to become state education commissioner, hired by Gov. Matt Bevin’s charter school-loving board to finally enact a Koch-fueled dream of publicly funded private schools throughout throughout the Commonwealth.

This summer, Lewis got a new boss at UK, who arrived just as he happened to publish a research paper that found segregation is more intense in charter schools than public schools in general. Julian Vasquez Heilig, 44, the new dean of the UK College of Education, said the timing was coincidental, but the research is clear and compelling.

“We know from the research that diversity and integration is good for all kids,” Vasquez Heilig said in an interview a few days before classes start at UK. “We have to decide for ourselves whether we prefer a Balkanized society or a diverse society. That’s a decision we’re going to have to make.”

Vasquez isn’t afraid of talking about provocative subjects; in the past seven years, his blog, Cloaking Inequity has taken on numerous controversial topics, such as why pro-charter school research frequently comes from organizations that already support them.

He’s a bold, interesting choice for UK, an institution that has traditionally preferred not to tangle with the legislative and executive branches that used to fund it. Certainly, his credentials are impressive: the University of Michigan for undergraduate and Stanford University for his masters and Ph.D., then a stint at the University of Texas before becoming a professor of educational leadership and policy studies and director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership program at California State University, Sacramento.

He’s not a total stranger to Lexington; he’s been coming here since 1993 when his uncle moved here to work for IBM. He sees Kentucky as a challenge to himself and the College of Education, which he says must make itself more visible and available in important policy discussions around the state.

“We want to make sure we’re not the ivory tower where Rapunzel rarely lets down her hair,” he said. “We want to be community engaged and community relevant ... UK as one of the lead institutions has an important responsibility to do that work, we to move the needle for the kids, the families and the teachers of the state.”

For example, he said, there’s a teacher shortage every 10 years or so, and states scramble to put teachers quickly into the field, despite the fact that the more training they have, the more likely they are to stay. His answer, not surprisingly, is more research.

“We have to assess statewide what are the biggest challenges that teachers are identifying, that would help us address this crisis,” he said. “Louisville and Lexington look different than Eastern Kentucky. What do they look like for teachers of different backgrounds?”

Vasquez Heilig praised the UK education faculty, and said one of his jobs is to get their work out into the public discussion more frequently, statewide and locally, perhaps with a new policy center located at the college. That’s a good move. As a Fayette County public school parent, I’d like to hear more about partnerships between the college and the schools in its backyard.

The new dean wants to do that. He’s a big fan of Superintendent Manny Caulk, for bringing new attention to under-served schools in Fayette County, in his words, “moving the needle.”

“I love Manny, I think he’s fantastic,” Vasquez Heilig said. “I want to collaborate with Fayette County in any and every way possible.”

Caulk, he says, is already addressing what he calls the “meta” question of education today.

“You don’t have to go to Finland or Singapore to see high quality public schools— you just have to go to Beaumont,” he said. “The wealthy have exactly what Finland has, they have exactly what Singapore has. They have high quality teachers, smaller class sizes, Montessori, high quality pre-K, et cetera. We provide all those things already in middle class and wealthy communities, our real challenge is how do we provide those things in low-income communities. That’s our biggest national challenge in education.”

At one time, reformers thought school choice was the answer, Vasquez Heilig included. He worked in a charter school and was a charter school parent and advocate.

“But over time with more research and data, now we’re trying to take a more balanced perspective,” he said. “There are clearly pluses and minuses to privately managed schools, and I think the predominance the research suggests that. We have to weigh those. Do we like the fact that charter schools are more segregated? Are we ok they are more likely to discipline black and brown boys? Are we ok with the fact they are less likely to serve special needs populations? But charter schools do a good job telling their story.”

As the General Assembly moves forward in January with finding a way to fund charter schools, it would be interesting for lawmakers to hear more research from Vasquez Heilig and other UK faculty, whose work he will champion. In my memory, lawmakers heard a lot from the Chamber of Commerce, the Bluegrass Institute and other people who already support charter schools, but rarely from academia. Vasquez Heilig also has thoughts— and research — on using test scores to judge schools, on funding, on teacher training, on serving special needs students, and oh so much more.

“Kentucky historically has been one of the lowest performing states in education in the nation, and I like big challenges” he said. “Coming here made a lot of sense because there was an opportunity to move the needle.”

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.

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