KERA doesn’t eliminate need for charter schools

Richard G. Innes
Richard G. Innes

Education consultant David Hornbeck — one of the Kentucky Education Reform Act’s original architects — claims the supposed big success of his brainchild makes it unnecessary and unwise for Kentucky to adopt a charter-school law.

His recent op-ed proclaims, “Kentucky children have made more progress than any other state in the union.” He reasons that with such good results already, Kentucky doesn’t need charter schools.

But Hornbeck’s assertion about the commonwealth’s progress really falls apart once you consider what happened to Kentucky’s largest racial minority after KERA came along.

Compare the earliest (1990) with the most recent (2015) scores for Kentucky’s black students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, “The Nation’s Report Card”) Grade 8 Math Assessment to scores for blacks in other states that participated both years and we learn: Kentucky’s improvement in math for blacks ranks very close to the bottom of the list.

Out of 28 states with data, only four improved less than the Bluegrass State.

If we only consider southern states, we find that North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Arkansas — all charter-school states — matched or exceeded the national average increase in black students’ math scores between 1990 and 2015.

Kentucky, one of only seven states still without charter schools, never came close to any of them.

Results during the 17 years that followed NAEP’s decision to begin testing Grade 8 reading show a very similar, poor performance for Kentucky’s blacks. In 1998, Kentucky’s black students only scored 246 on NAEP. In 2015, the commonwealth’s black reading score inched up only one point to 247.

Only four states made less progress in NAEP Grade 8 reading among the 29 states that have black reading scores for both years.

Kentucky’s paltry, single-point score improvement for blacks on NAEP Grade 8 reading between 1998 and 2015 isn’t even a statistically significant change.

Did you get that?

In Hornbeck’s KERA-influenced, charter-school-devoid Kentucky, eighth-grade blacks made no statistically significant progress in reading between 1998 and 2015. That sure isn’t nation-leading improvement.

Also, consider Tennessee’s NAEP reading performance. Tennessee, which passed its charter-school law in 2002, ranks way up near the top — in fourth place — for its increase in black reading scores on NAEP.

Back in 1998 — several years before it adopted charters – Tennessee scored 11 points behind Kentucky’s black students. However, the Volunteer State’s blacks in 2015 performed the same as their fellow black students in Kentucky.

Florida is an even bigger embarrassment. The Sunshine State’s blacks scored 10 points behind Kentucky in 1998 but now place four points ahead of the Bluegrass State.

Even Kentucky’s white students fail to come close to Hornbeck’s lofty claims of being nation-beaters for progress in NAEP’s eighth-grade reading and math assessments. In 2015, Kentucky’s white students outscored only whites in West Virginia and Alabama on NAEP Grade 8 Math in a statistically significant way.

Meanwhile, whites in 42 other states and even District of Columbia schools did substantially better.

Far from matching Hornbeck’s inflated claims, when the NAEP data is broken out by race to do fair, apples-to-apples comparisons, Kentucky education isn’t a leader.

KERA, which was House Bill 940 passed in 1990, declared in Section 3: “schools shall expect a high level of achievement from all students.”

The commonwealth’s chronic achievement gap makes it clear that KERA’s promise of all kids receiving a quality education remains sorely unfulfilled — most of all for the Bluegrass State’s largest racial minority group.

The truth is, given their record of success with minorities, charters could help in Kentucky.

KERA, despite Hornbeck’s claims, hasn’t.

Richard G. Innes, of Villa Hills, is staff education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank.

At issue: Commentary by David Hornbeck, “Why I was wrong about charter schools, why Kentucky is better off without them”