Public charter schools just one tool for improving education in Kentucky

In 2016, Teddi Baker taught her Advanced Placement Human Geography class at East Jessamine High School in Nicholasville, which was designated as a distinguished school.
In 2016, Teddi Baker taught her Advanced Placement Human Geography class at East Jessamine High School in Nicholasville, which was designated as a distinguished school. cbertram@herald-leader.com

From reading the newspaper, Kentucky parents might conclude that public charter schools are central to everything the Kentucky Department of Education has done over the last two months, and that charter schools are central to everything I, as interim commissioner, hope to accomplish for kids.

That conclusion would be false. While I have been, and will continue to be, an advocate for high-quality public charter schools, I have made it clear what my policy priorities will be in this role.

During the June 6 meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education, I told board members that everything we do should be aligned to student outcomes. This includes closing achievement gaps, ensuring our youngest students are acquiring skills in literacy and numeracy, and revising the state’s high-school graduation requirements. Other priorities include:

▪ Increasing the number of high-school students completing career- and technical-education pathways and earning industry-recognized credentials in high-demand sectors.

▪ Increasing the number of high-school students successfully completing early postsecondary opportunities, such as dual-credit courses and Advanced Placement testing.

▪ Increasing flexibility and autonomy for schools and school districts in exchange for performance accountability.

▪ Expanding the number and type of high-quality options available to students. Public charter schools are just one tool in the toolbox of Kentucky education to improve student outcomes.

Retired professor Marty Solomon’s recent op-ed, “Education chief offers wrong views on charter schools,” is off base, ill-informed and offers only a few weak arguments against a reform that has over time proven to be a helpful addition to public education. Most disturbing is that he gives no attention to needs of children and desires of parents.

In fact, a 2013 poll from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed that eight in 10 Kentucky voters supported increasing options available for parents when choosing a public school for their children.

Contrary to Solomon’s assertion, Kentucky’s law requires that charters use the same academic standards and participate in the same assessment and accountability system as all other Kentucky public schools. Charters are required to hire teachers certified in Kentucky. Kentucky’s law has strong quality-control provisions that create a high bar of entry for charter applicants and ensure only schools that perform well academically will be permitted to continue to operate.

Additionally, because no student can be assigned to attend a public charter school, charters must offer programs that are attractive to students and parents. Once the legislature sets a permanent charter funding mechanism, I believe these schools will exist primarily in our metropolitan areas, as has been the pattern in other states.

Traditional public schools have been, and will continue to be, the primary vehicle for delivering instruction to our students. Kentucky’s charter school statute gives us the opportunity to provide additional high-quality public school options to students trapped in schools and programs that do not meet their needs.

Kentucky has struggled mightily to provide high-quality learning experiences to children from low-income families, children of color and children with disabilities. I will continue to advocate for the expansion of high-quality options for parents and students, including the growth of a high-quality charter sector to help us better meet the needs of all students.

Consider this: In Kentucky, 2017 K-PREP test scores show that 72.4 percent of third-grade students who do not receive free/reduced-priced meals scored proficient/distinguished in reading. Only 47.3 percent of students who do receive free/reduced-price meals scored at the top levels.

The scores in mathematics also are troubling, especially when broken down by race. In 2017, 53.5 percent of white students in third grade scored distinguished/proficient in math, while only 31.2 of African-American students scored at the top levels. These numbers show clearly that tremendous improvement is needed to ensure our system is meeting the needs of all students.

Solomon suggests that funding alone would lead to better outcomes for our under-served student populations. To put it bluntly, he is wrong. Simply increasing funding to a system that is foundationally inequitable will not eliminate the inequity we currently find in our schools. We must also improve our system.

Kentucky’s public-education system is in need of significant reform and we must use every tool at our disposal to improve it. That is what it means to truly put our children first.

Wayne D. Lewis Jr. is interim commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education.