In his first state board of education meeting Wednesday, interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said that a state takeover was the only route to repair JCPS and that his state policy priorities included school choice and charter schools.
After a brief recap of the JCPS audit findings, which were released in April alongside Lewis’ takeover recommendation, Lewis said that he “welcomes” the opportunity to prove his findings to the board in the coming hearing and vote on his recommendation.
“I believe there is no other route to ensuring that the children of Jefferson County, particularly the most vulnerable children in Jefferson County, are protected, are served well and that adults are held accountable for doing so,” Lewis told the board during his commissioner’s report.
Last week, the Jefferson County Board of Education unanimously voted to challenge the recommendation in an administrative hearing. The hearing will allow each side to present evidence before the state board makes its final vote on Lewis’ recommendation. The hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet but is expected to happen near the end of June.
Outside of the recap and brief comment, Lewis did not spend too much time discussing JCPS, instead opting to explain his policy priorities. Fixing the state’s achievement gaps, typically when white students outperform students of color on state tests, is the top priority, he told the board.
JCPS’ own achievement gaps have been a talking point for the district’s critics since before Lewis’ recommendation. A recent Insider Louisville analysis found the achievement gap is widening for elementary and middle school students but not as quickly as in the rest of the state.
Increasing school choice is also a priority, including “the growth of a new public charter school sector,” according to Lewis’ priority outline. However, Lewis — a charter school proponent — said traditional public schools were still going to be the way most of the state’s students are educated.
“I couldn’t start a charter school in a lot of districts in Kentucky if I tried,” Lewis said.
However, parents have asked him for options for their students, Lewis asserted. (Insider has viewed hundreds of emails to Lewis and other board members, with few requests to bring charter schools to the state.)
Charter schools are a “mixed bag” of success but often show the biggest gains for low-income minority students, Lewis said. “Why would we not consider a tool that has been proven to be effective with the very population of students we can’t seem to serve well.”
Lewis noted that while increased choice could be achieved through charter schools, it could also be done through school program choice. Current options, like JCPS’ magnet and arts programs, are “innovative,” but space restrictions often prevent some students from attending their top choice, Lewis said. More students need access to these programs, he said.
Top postsecondary chief slams KERA in lieu of final report
Before Lewis’ report, the outgoing Council on Postsecondary Education President Bob King criticized the Kentucky Education Reform Act instead of presenting his final report before retirement.
JCPS is not fully serving its students, King said. But KERA makes it difficult for superintendents and principals to hire their top choices to help in the district, he told the board.
Instead of explicitly speaking for or against a JCPS takeover, King asked the board to rethink and potentially redesign KERA, adding that it has outlived its usefulness.
“You can still preserve local control, but you can’t do it any meaningful way” unless KERA is revisited, King said.
Public comment section focuses on local control
Of the six public speakers during the board meeting, four discussed JCPS. All four stood against a potential takeover.
A mix of JCPS stakeholders — two parents, a teacher and a PTA president — spoke, asking for the state board to vote against the takeover after the upcoming hearing. Some said a state takeover would mean their voice in the local school system would be lost.
“My heart has been breaking all day long,” the 15th District PTA president, Autumn Neagle, said. “Don’t take away our voice.”
Gay Adelmann, the co-founder of DearJCPS and JCPS parent, said she sent her child to one of JCPS’ worst schools. She said that many of its, and the district’s problems, stem from state policies and decisions from the former superintendent’s administration.
“As a mom, I’m pleading with you to not take away our momentum,” Adelmann said.
Kentucky could contract with another state agency for JCPS hearing officer
Kentucky may contract with another state agency to provide a hearing officer to oversee JCPS’ takeover recommendation challenge.
Normally, a hearing officer is provided from the state attorney general’s office. However, due to staff shortages at the AG’s office, an internal hearing officer might not be available for the JCPS hearing, interim general counsel Todd Allen said.
The board asked Allen to search for an internal candidate first, but also gave him permission to explore potentially contracting with third party if needed.
On the other side, Allen said none of the department of education’s legal team feels comfortable representing the board in the hearing, and recommended finding special counsel for all JCPS matters. The department already has an outside law firm contracted, Allen said, and noted they may be able use one of those lawyers.
This story has been corrected to say Kentucky may contract with another state agency for a hearing officer – not another state.