Editorials

Kentucky must stop backsliding on education

‘High quality charter schools’ are a tool to help achievement in education, commissioner says

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis talking about next steps for charter schools in Kentucky.
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Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis talking about next steps for charter schools in Kentucky.

Reality collided with ideology, and reality won as Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis wisely retreated from unreasonable demands for earning a Kentucky high-school diploma.

Here’s hoping the backlash revealed to Lewis and state Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner the necessity of enlisting stakeholders in big decisions from the start.

More squabbling over under-baked ideas that were whipped up in the dark won’t help Kentucky as it keeps losing hard-won ground in education to other states.

What Kentucky needs is support for expanding pre-school, better teaching, quick help for students who fall behind, a high school experience that’s meaningful for more youngsters and affordable higher education.

Until the recent outpouring of opposition, it seemed not to have dawned on Lewis that his graduation requirements would have disadvantaged students in smaller, poorer school districts that cannot afford to offer all the options he had proposed for proving diploma-worthiness.

To his credit, he recognized the inequity and other problems when they were pointed out and scaled back his proposal, which the state Board of Education approved Dec. 5.

Lawmakers, especially those who represent poor districts, may have helped educate the commissioner. The legislature will have the final say and should keep asking questions such as the unintended consequences of demanding “basic competency” when the future will demand something beyond basic, and whether the new graduation requirements will promote academic rigor, or, as the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence fears, “create an unintended ceiling for student outcomes.”

Lewis’ original graduation proposal seemed tailored to make public schools look like failures — a boost for the charter schools dear to the ideology driving Heiner and Gov. Matt Bevin, whose put-downs of teachers and the liberal arts have alienated educators and educated.

Fortunately, public schools enjoy support from most of the Republicans who control the legislature; they can learn from other states, which right now are far outpacing Kentucky in, among other areas, early childhood education.

Lewis’ agency recently released data showing almost half of young Kentuckians start kindergarten already behind. Lewis said “research is clear that brain development begins very early, with much of it complete before kids enter kindergarten. ... An essential element of improving education, workforce and the life outcomes for Kentuckians is focusing on kids’ early learning and readiness for kindergarten.”

Yet, since 2008, Kentucky has fallen from 24th to 41st among states in 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool. No wonder we’re also losing ground in fourth grade reading and math. The rankings are from a recent update of data by the Prichard Committee.

A bright note, since 2008, despite plummeting state support for higher education, Kentucky moved from 44th to 38th in percent of adults, age 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, a sign that earlier reforms worked. It’s admittedly slow progress, but when elected leaders are serious and consistent about improving education, success follows.

All Kentuckians should have the rich educational opportunities envisioned by Lewis. Instead, schools are struggling to pay for basics, such as transportation. This is hardly the time to siphon funding from existing schools into starting up charters.

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