To the members of the Kentucky Board of Education,
I am writing to register my opposition to state takeover of JCPS. Given the political nature of your appointments, the ties that many of you have to education privatization, and the stated positions of many of you regarding Jefferson County Public Schools and education, I have little hope that my plea will get a real hearing, but I would hope that you would at least read these points and give rejecting state takeover some consideration.
1) Jefferson County Public Schools have much that is good about them.
Many of the critics of JCPS have talked about the need for choice. The truth is that JCPS offers many choices to parents, and we as parents have taken advantage of them to help my daughter. We chose her elementary school, her magnet middle school program, and her magnet high school because they were the ones best suited to address my daughter's artistic abilities and the fact that she was gifted and talented. There are many students doing well in JCPS and many satisfied customers of JCPS. If you are truly advocates of choice, then you must realize that JCPS does have choice, and that our student assignment program provides them. If anything, the state should be supplying more resources to JCPS to encourage and grow our choices.
While there certainly many areas where JCPS has failed under its prior leadership, there are many wonderful schools, programs, teachers, and staff doing great things daily. This board and commissioner should be vocal in supporting those.
2) The climate of JCPS prior to Dr. Hargens resignation was terrible. So much so that it felt like it was by design.
I attended almost every JCPS Board of Education Meeting from the beginning of 2015 to the end of Dr. Hargens' reign. From her contract renewal forward, the wheels seemed to fall off the system. Morale plummeted. Teachers, parents, and students complained about discipline and academic issues that went unaddressed. Many talked about receiving no backup from the administration. Several key administrators left. Important work was outsourced. We saw a Chief Business Officer brought in who helped destroy morale with a salary study that contained key errors that made it meaningless.
If you watched or attended those board meetings, you would have seen numerous meetings with parents, teachers, and students who were upset about what was going on in the system, and a Superintendent who seemed to turn a deaf ear to them. Additionally, we saw a Louisville business community that seemed to be happy about the turmoil she created, with several prominent local business people and even our Chamber of Commerce praising her after she resigned. It's not hard to wonder if these people were happy because she helped place the state in a position where state takeover could be possible.
It’s also worth noting that internally our board had a lot of division between those who supported Hargens and tried to limit discussion about her actions, and members who were tired of being left in the dark or having to deal with the consequences of those actions. Those members are the ones who were re-elected and helped bring forth her resignation.
3) Kentucky's School Boards are limited by law in their power and are given training that advises them to work for compromise and agreement to support the Superintendent.
JCPS critics love to bash our school boards for not fixing every single problem with the district. By law they are limited in the scope of their powers. They are not supposed to be involved in day to day operations and cannot hire or fire anyone but a few select people that report directly to the board. Additionally, their training emphasizes that they should work together to reach agreement and compromise, as well as support the superintendent. There are several instances when our last superintendent seemed to purposely keep most of our school board in the dark, and others where our school board was unaware of steps being taken by the previous superintendent and her administration. This is not the fault of the board, but a superintendent who seemed to work hard to hide information from the rest of the board. The men and women of the board also are limited in the times they can meet and discuss these issues to meetings held in accordance to open meetings law, which helps ensure transparency, but can make addressing these issues more difficult.
4) The performance gap issues of JCPS are not unique to JCPS, they're just easier to bury in other districts.
Critics of JCPS like to talk about achievement gaps in our schools. Certainly these are gaps we need to address. But these same critics place the blame solely on teachers and schools without looking at the bigger picture. Gaps are not uncommon at all throughout Kentucky, from the best scoring districts to the worst. Even in places like Oldham County you'll find that minority students and poorer students do worse than white students and wealthier students. Of course, since the percentages of poor and minority students are much smaller, these districts look much better on paper than JCPS. What is seldom discussed is WHY these students might have greater issues achieving at a level of their more privileged peers. Which leads me to....
5) We cannot fix educational outcomes and achievement gaps without addressing societal inequities.
We blame teachers and schools, but we seldom talk about how income and opportunity impact education. We don't discuss economic opportunity, hunger, homelessness, transportation, disproportionate incarceration, violence, or other issues that impact educational outcomes for students among various groups. Nor do we discuss how Kentucky and Louisville can address these issues that feed educational outcomes. Certainly we should work to improve our teachers’ abilities to handle students from all backgrounds, but we should also recognize that the circumstances these kids grow up in feeds their learning. Any discussion of Louisville's schools that does NOT address how we can make life better for its children and their families is foolish. But that's a discussion that Mr. Heiner, Commissioner Lewis, and at least some of this board don't seem to want to have.
6) This board does NOT reflect the 100,000 families of JCPS.
There can be no denying that this board does NOT represent a diverse set of views or circumstances, nor does it reflect the 100,000 public school families of JCPS. Each of you has been appointed by a governor with a dim view of public education. Several of you have joined with each other in the creation of non-profits to further the cause of charter schools and school privatization. I don’t believe any of the Louisville board members have had any kids in JCPS.
Over 35% JCPS students are African American, but we have a Kentucky Board of Education member who has openly attacked diversity initiatives and the Civil Rights Act, another who has questioned if parents in our predominantly black neighborhoods care about kids, and you all serve under a governor who has made racially insensitive comments and has attacked the faith of ministers who called him out for his tone deaf approach to violence in the west end.
Louisville ranks 11th in percentage of gay residents, but our Kentucky board chairman voted against the local Fairness Ordinance, and has aligned himself (along with Dr. Lewis and Milton Seymore) with JCPS critic, "Pastor" Jerry Stephenson, who has issued some of the most vile attacks against our LGBT community.
In short, I don't believe most of you truly represent the 100,000 students of JCPS, the community at large, or the parents who choose to send their kids to public schools. While some of you DO send your kids to public schools, I doubt that you fully understand JCPS or the issues the Louisville faces daily. Certainly I've not seen any of the local members of our Kentucky School Board putting much effort into being a part of JCPS and helping to make it better beyond throwing criticisms at the district. It is frustrating to read that several members of this board have complained about being contacted directly about state takeover. You are serving in a representative capacity. If you do not wish to do so, you can always resign.
7) There is ZERO evidence that Dr. Lewis or the state board is better able to initiate positive change to JCPS, or that they are qualified for the task.
Dr Lewis has limited K-12 experience that occurred over a decade ago, and apparently none at the administrative level. He has refused to talk about any plan or work he would do if he takes over the district to improve things, citing a law that doesn’t say anything about his ability to weigh in. The state has only taken over tiny districts in the past with mixed results. It’s unclear how Lewis or any member of the KDE expects to affect change in a district many times the size of other districts that they have taken over.
8) The road to state takeover has been a politically motivated sham.
There is plenty of reason to feel that this is all politically and ideologically motivated.
Your new board chair, Hal Heiner, has spent close to a decade working with several of you to push for charter schools and other privatization efforts. Chair Heiner, Vice-chair Seymore, and board member Houchens all served together on a local non-profit, the Kentucky Charter School Association, devoted to attacking JCPS and bringing charters to the state. Commissioner Lewis was also a part of this same board. Additionally, as stated above, Lewis, Seymore, and Mr. Heiner have all worked together with Indiana Pastor and JCPS critic Jerry Stephenson, in the BAEO, Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition, and the Kentucky Education Restoration Alliance.
Prior to the latest round of Bevin appointments to the board, it was believed by several people I spoke to that Stephen Pruitt was leaning toward state assistance. Indeed, some documents released after the fact reflect this. But for reasons I don’t think have ever fully been explained, Pruitt’s final recommendation was tied up until the point where Governor Bevin could appoint new members to the board. This new board of Bevin appointees gathered in a hastily called meeting to oust Pruitt, despite his glowing performance reviews. At that meeting you violated several of your own board policies when you elected a new chairman (and neglected to elect a vice chair). You then entered an illegal closed session where suddenly Pruitt was out and Lewis was in. With Lewis in place, it was clear we were headed for state takeover, and that is indeed what Lewis recommended.
Commissioner Lewis’ settlement offer makes it clear that what is really desired is the ability to control certain aspects of JCPS. Most notable among these is student assignment. Changes to our student assignment plan could adversely impact thousands of our children by dismantling magnet programs and taking away our ability to choose the schools our children go to. The Kentucky General Assembly tried to dismantle our magnet programs with the Neighborhood Schools Bill and failed. Now our Governor is trying to do it with a non-elected board of individuals who have a vested interest in dismantling our school choices. Pushing JCPS to neighborhood schools would make charter schools more appealing once they become the sole choice. This would also serve to re-segregate our schools, which is certainly appealing to some in our community, including real estate developers who like to make sure their houses are near “good” schools and wouldn’t have to worry about kids from poorer areas coming to those schools.
These moves are not about improving our schools. If it was, Wayne Lewis would be looking to work with our board, superintendent, and teachers collaboratively; not continuously lobbing grenades at us from Lexington and Frankfort. He’d be talking about our schools and our city holistically, and working to find ways to improve life and education for all 100,000 students in JCPS; and not simply hurling barbs at our teachers and board of education.
In conclusion, I realize this email will anger some of you. That’s fine. But realize that just as you made choices for your children’s education, I made choices for mine. And I will fight any attempt to undermine or hurt my daughter’s education, the education of others, JCPS, and public education in general. If you want to affect change, work with us and not against us. If called upon, please vote against state takeover of all or any part of JCPS.
Feel free to contact me. I'd love to hear from you.