Kentucky’s student poverty – not as much as you think

We hear a lot of excuses from some of our educators that one reason Kentucky’s education system fares rather poorly is because we have a lot of students in poverty, far more than most other states.


Well, this is another case where our educators might not be very up to date with their statistics.

[Read more…]

BIPPS on ‘Ky Tonight’: Is Bevin’s proposed budget anti-education?

Is Gov. Matt Bevin’s two-year budget proposal with its 70 suggested program cuts, including slashing funding for a teachers’ professional-development project, really anti-education or could some of these programs be provided in a more efficient and effective manner? And how much do these programs affect the education of children in the classroom?

These questions and more will be debated Monday night on Kentucky Educational Television’s “Kentucky Tonight,” an award-winning statewide public affairs program hosted by Renee Shaw at 8 p.m. ET.

Watch the hour-long show live on KET and at

Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky will join Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters in promoting choice and innovation in Kentucky’s education system.

Read recent posts about what’s happening in Kentucky’s public education system, including this post containing comments from an obviously sharp young freshman in the Jefferson County Public Schools, and the need for reforming Kentucky’s School Based Decision Making policy here.

Other panelists include Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, and Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the message form at Viewers may also submit questions and comments on Twitter @ket, #kytonight or on KET’s Facebook page. All messages should include first and last name and town or county.

Plan to call in during the program with your comments and questions at 1-800-494-7605.

Kentucky Tonight programs are archived online, made available via podcast, and rebroadcast on KET, KET KY, and radio.

Help the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions continue to advance freedom and prosperity by promoting free‐market capitalism, smaller government, and the defense of personal liberties. Join us!

A possible clue about big achievement gaps in some Jefferson County schools?

Over the years the Bluegrass Institute has issued several reports on the white minus black achievement gaps in the Jefferson County Public School District (JCPS) (Click here for the latest edition). We found a number of surprises in this report series, including the fact that the largest white minus black math achievement gaps in JCPS are predominantly found in schools in the upper-scale East side of the district. In our latest report, the Dunn Elementary school stands out for its enormous 50.5 percentage point white minus black achievement gap in 2015 KPREP math testing and some other JCPS schools don’t do much better. These gaps are particularly surprising given the massive busing for equity program in JCPS.

So, the test results indicate there is a problem in Jefferson County. Why this is happening is beyond our ability to investigate.

Nevertheless, we had suspicions. For one thing, just because the ratios of whites and blacks look good at the school level doesn’t mean those ratios hold at the classroom level. It certainly seemed possible that kids of color were being shuttled into less demanding classes. No one in authority seemed to be looking at that.

There the matter sat until yesterday, when the Courier-Journal published a rather amazing Op-Ed, “Black students feel voiceless at Manual High School, so I staged a sit-in.” It was authored by Quintez Brown, a clearly very sharp young man from duPont Manual High School, a highly competitive magnet school in JCPS.

Writes Brown:

“I had the opportunity to go to elementary schools such as Fern Creek and Norton (which was very far from my home), where not only was the majority of the school white, but I was usually one of the few black students in my advanced classes. Despite being integrated into a suburban school in a predominantly white neighborhood, there were still signs of segregation inside classrooms (emphasis added).

  • Note: In the research for our latest gap report we found that Norton Elementary School had a math achievement gap of 43.8 percentage points in 2015, the seventh worst white minus black math achievement gap among the 89 JCPS elementary schools with data. Fern Creek also ranked rather low with the 27th worst gap of 27.0 percentage points.

Brown continues:

“Black students are placed in lower-level classes, have higher suspension rates, and are viewed as ‘troublemakers’ within the school system. Black students who do get placed in advanced courses with a majority of white students now face the challenges of microaggressions, implicit biases and other verbal and nonverbal behaviors that enforce their marginalization in the educational system.”

So, here is possible insight into what we found in our reports about JCPS achievement gaps. And, this raises VERY serious questions about the real impact of massive busing in Louisville, too.

People leading the JCPS and the Kentucky Department of Education need to investigate this situation. At the very least, if busing really isn’t working, we can save a ton of money and diesel in Louisville.

But, most importantly, as Brown so nicely sums this up:

“Diversity in education is extremely important. But it is not enough. Diversity without equity leads to exclusion.”

Law firm’s investigation of Jurich may remain forever secret.

COG2On January 28, we reported on an increasingly common practice among public agencies that threatens the public’s right of access to investigative reports and analyses for which they, the public, pay. The same practice – we noted — has expanded employment opportunities for the legal community. From an open government perspective, this is unfortunate.

More and more, agencies are contracting with attorneys to conduct investigations into matters of  public interest as diverse as prematurely returning disciplined teachers to the classroom and violations of campaign finance laws.

In some cases, agencies enter into the arrangements for the express purpose of avoiding the requirements of the Open Records Act.  These agencies employ attorneys to investigate — or hire investigators — in order to shield the resulting report and analysis from public inspection based on the attorney-client privilege. Kentucky’s courts recognize the privilege as an exception to public inspection under certain circumstances.

In other cases, the agencies enter into the arrangement with the understanding that the resulting report and analysis will be released to the public when final action is taken or a decision is made to take no action. This, clearly, is the practice that comports with the spirit and letter of the Open Records Act.

On January 29, the Courier-Journal reported that the law firm retained by the  University of Louisville in its breach of contract dispute with former athletic director Tom Jurich has hired a detective agency to “provide additional context, fill in blanks and presumably to dig for dirt on Jurich as he and the university head toward mediation and a potential court battle.”

Given the University’s past track record on open records compliance, we suspect it will not be inclined to waive the attorney-client privilege and release the law firm/investigator’s report at its conclusion. To do so would require a level of respect for the public’s right to know that the University has thus far sadly failed to demonstrate.

State Journal files counterclaim against Finance Cabinet in Franklin Circuit Court action

COG2On January 26, The State Journal filed a motion for leave of court to assert a counterclaim against the Finance and Administration Cabinet in a case in Franklin Circuit Court arising from the Cabinet’s lawsuit against a reporter for the newspaper. The lawsuit seeks to reverse a favorable ruling by the Attorney General obtained by the newspaper in its open meetings dispute with the Cabinet.

Center for Open Government Director Amye Bensenhaver represents The State Journal in the action.

The case stems from State Journal reporter Alfred Miller’s attempts to attend those portions of  meetings conducted by the Capital Plaza Redevelopment Project Built-to-Suit Selection Committee that state law requires to be conducted in open session. The committee was charged with making recommendations on bids submitted by contractors under state procurement laws unique to the built-to-suit process.

As he pursued the story, Miller received repeated assurances that “upon the award of any public solicitation, the Finance and Administration Cabinet has always maintained a longstanding practice of releasing almost all records related to the award, inclusive of all bids, composition of evaluation team, bid scoring, and the final terms agreed to.”

The committee completed its duties and a contract was awarded on December 19, 2017.

On December 21, Miller submitted an open records request to the Cabinet for copies of the responsive bids. He received no response to his request. The Open Records Law requires public agencies to notify a requester, in writing and within three working days, whether his request will be honored and to make the records available on the third day if they are not “in active use, in storage, or not otherwise available.” Miller received nothing.

On January 9, 2018, Miller contacted the Cabinet’s records custodian to remind her that the agency’s response was long overdue and to ascertain the status of his request. She responded that the Cabinet is “still in the process of gathering all the requested documents,” and that she “anticipate[d] to be able to respond to [Miller’s] request on or before February 1, 2018.” Miller immediately asked that she “provide a reason for the delay.” Later that day, the Cabinet’s Public Information Officer notified Miller that “we have staff gathering the information, which will need to be reviewed as well.”

Quoting KRS 61.872(5) — which deals with requests for public records that are “in active use, in storage or not otherwise available,” and requires public agencies in such cases to provide “a detailed explanation of the cause” for further delay —  Miller again asked for “more detail on the cause of the delay.” Again, he received no response of any kind.

Based on these events, The State Journal has requested leave to amend its response to the Cabinet’s petition for review of the attorney general’s open meetings decision favoring the newspaper in order to assert a counterclaim against the Cabinet for subverting the intent of the Open Records Act short of denial of inspection. It is The State Journal’s position that the Cabinet actions  subvert the intent of the Act by impermissibly and unjustifiably delaying Miller access to the four responsive bids for over a month beyond the three day statutory deadline.

We are asking the court to order the immediate disclosure of all responsive bids and to find that the Cabinet willfully withheld the requested bids.

It is our firm belief that the ends of justice, as well as judicial economy, support our request.

Bluegrass Beacon: Will pension funding engulf entire budget?

BluegrassBeaconLogoEditor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.

Your humble correspondent warned for years that the day would come when public-pension funding crowded out government services Kentuckians on both sides of the political aisle care deeply about.

I’ve also warned repeatedly that dumping more money into the systems without stopping the bleeding of the nation’s worst pension crisis among states will create additional pressures on an already-strained budget while failing to fix the woes of our retirement systems.

Despite fervently hoping such prophecies were wrong, they now find fulfillment in Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed two-year budget.

Bevin recommends cutting 70 programs, including health screenings for various cancers, which especially benefit low-income, disabled and poor Kentuckians, while at the same time dumping more than $3 billion – nearly 15 percent of the commonwealth’s next entire two-year General Fund budget – into the deepening public-pension hole.

Even after more than $2 billion was included in the 2016 budget – including an additional $1.2 billion for the Teachers’ Retirement System – the pension plans’ funding levels have continued declining.

You can’t keep digging the hole and simultaneously expect to move closer to climbing out of it.

Many states face similar pension pressures, yet none have made spent, taxed or borrowed their way out of their holes, most of which aren’t nearly as deep as Kentucky’s.

The governor deserves credit for taking a stand in his recent budget speech to a joint session of the legislature against borrowing our way out of this mess, making it clear such an alternative is off the table. Doing so, he rightly states, would be like a family using the Mastercard to make payments on the American Express balance.

However, instead of going ahead and doing what that same family would if it wants to climb out of its financial hole – reducing spending – he proposes increasing it for public-retirement plans at the expense of just about everything else.

“Never once in the history of Kentucky has the (actuarially required contribution) been fully funded for all our pension systems – not one time, which is why we now find ourselves in the situation where they are all so severely underfunded,” Bevin said, sounding like many of his predecessors who found it easier to blame pension problems on funding deficiencies rather than the fact that the commonwealth has for years offered benefits at unaffordable and unsustainable levels.

“This year they will be funded in their entirety,” he boasted.

As if I should stand up and clap vigorously like I did when the governor announced something must be done about school systems’ central-office administrators making six-figure salaries while demonstrating little, if any, positive impact on student achievement in the classroom.

Bevin’s boast isn’t really that helpful, considering the ARC, which is simply the cost of current benefits plus debt payments from the past, isn’t “fully funded” because it’s been arbitrarily decided rather than actuarially established.

Instead of awarding only benefits that are properly prefunded – as defined-benefit systems are supposed to do – Kentucky’s retirement plans have for years colluded with politicians to increase benefits retroactively, thus disrupting the systems’ funding levels.

Of course, these unfunded benefit enhancements created a bigger ARC.

However, to blame Kentucky’s pension woes on inadequate funding by the legislature is like a couple with a $45,000 income getting evicted after purchasing a $1 million home and being unable to make the payments, then blaming their eviction on the fact they couldn’t make the payments rather than on the reality that they purchased a home they couldn’t afford.

It’s unfair for politicians and these systems’ administrators to make promises to beneficiaries they can’t afford to keep.

It’s also patently unfair to leave taxpayers in the private sector trying to support their families and who often don’t enjoy nearly the same level of retirement benefits holding the ARC bag into which they must dump an increasing number of their hard-earned dollars to pay the principal and interest on those promises.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.

Attorneys profit from agency disfunction and the public foots the bill

COG2One benefit of forced retirement is the opportunity to monitor what is happening on the state and national open government stage that extends beyond the narrow confines of my cramped office in the basement of the Capitol. Sunlight, which my co-workers and I rarely saw in the winter months, has exposed a deeply troubling level of noncompliance with the Sunshine Laws we fought — and fight — to defend.

Noncompliance is a pervasive problem at every level of government and in every state — indeed, every country — that enjoys the benefits of laws protecting the public’s right to know. But the issue came home to rest for me personally when I was recently drawn into a divisive issue in Frankfort with significant open records and meetings implications. The details have been recounted in numerous articles in The State Journal.

Fundamentally, the open records and meetings issues arise from a dispute between and among the members of the Frankfort Electric and Water Plant Board’s Board of Directors concerning its contract with KyMEA— an interagency body of municipal utilities operating under a “coordinated business structure” created to meet the municipalities’ electrical needs and to enable members “to benefit from economies of scale in planning for and obtaining power supply resources.”

That dispute has escalated into a power struggle that has compromised the directors’ ability to discharge their duties and led to demands for the removal of the directors who are KyMEA critics. Allegations of malfeasance and non-feasance have been leveled by the directors between and among themselves and by city commissioners.

One thing is certain. The dispute has created tremendous employment opportunities for the legal community. Directors who are critical of the KyMEA contract first secured board approval for a $50,000 contract with an out of state law firm to review the KyMEA contract. The law firm’s draft report was delivered to these critics on November 28, but this fact was not disclosed until the law firm submitted an invoice for the report five weeks later. The critics’ attempt to “nullify” the report by returning or deleting it has everyone in Frankfort scratching their heads. The report was “unnullified” when it’s existence was revealed, and although the critics on the board agreed to share it with the remaining Plant Board directors, they refused to share it with Plant Board staff based on a tortured but unexplained interpretation of the attorney/client privilege.

The ratepayers who financed the report are left to wonder about its contents and why it was labeled a “draft” other than as an additional basis for avoiding open records requirements. This, of course, raises a separate but equally confounding open records issue.

In the meantime, the controversy — festering for months – bled over to the Frankfort Board of Commissioners. A vote approving a $20,000 contract for an attorney to investigate whether the actions of these Frankfort Plant Board directors rise to the level of malfeasance, misfeasance, non-feasance, or inefficiency justifying removal was rescinded in the wake of open meetings challenges but approved again at a subsequent meeting. That report is expected in less than a month.

The question is: Will the Commission and the Board of Directors make public the reports that the public financed or will they hide behind the attorney/client privilege to deprive the public of its statutory right to know?

With this nagging question in mind, I spoke to the assembled body at the last Commission meeting. My comments were also meant for the directors of the Plant Board who have thus far resisted disclosure of their contract attorneys’ report even, as noted, to members of the Plant Board staff.

Because they have relevance beyond the immediate controversy, I include a portion of my comments here:

“Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws, both open meetings and open records, begin with a presumption of openness. The statutory exceptions to this presumption of openness, the law tells us, must be strictly construed. Even where an exception applies to the topic of discussion at a public meeting or the matter addressed in a public record, the exception should be invoked only where there is an overriding need for governmental confidentiality, codified in statute, that clearly outweighs the public’s statutorily protected right to know.

Events in the past several weeks demonstrate just how much we have departed from these ideals.

Far too much time is expended on exploring avenues to evade these laws. Far too little time is expended on complying with the laws and, in complying, giving more than lip service to the right of the public to know that its servants are indeed serving the public’s interests.

I have become especially concerned about the growing public agency practice of retaining attorneys to conduct investigations and issue reports that may be shielded from public inspection by the attorney/client privilege—a privilege that is recognized in the laws under narrowly tailored circumstances. The privilege is not intended to enable public officials to avoid scrutiny by strained construction and labored effort.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting recently exposed the Jefferson County Public Schools’ admitted attempt to avoid accountability for hastily returning disciplined teachers to the classroom by retaining a law firm to advise on the issue. The law firm hired an investigator to examine the problem and JCPS invoked the attorney/client privilege as the basis for withholding the resulting report.  The problem is not confined to JCPS.

Taxpayers (or ratepayers) are asked to finance investigations, reports, and legal analysis to which they are ultimately denied access. From the public’s perspective, actions are taken by their agencies  in a legal and factual vacuum. The principle that the ‘formation of public policy is public business,’ enshrined in the laws, is the ultimate casualty.  This is a serious affront to open government.”

On behalf of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government, I called on the Commission – and indirectly, the recalcitrant Plant Board directors — to “commit to transparency in retaining counsel to investigate and analyze the urgent issues that confront our community and in sharing the results of that investigation and analysis—not just the final action it elects to take.”

Only time will tell if the Commission or the Plant Board are moved to do the right thing.




Madison County School Board gets it – Kentucky needs changes to awkward SBDM rules

The Richmond Register reports that the Madison County Board of Education has adopted a resolution in favor of Senate Bill 55.

Senate Bill 55 would bring more rationality to the way Kentucky’s schools are governed under the current School Based Decision-Making laws (SBDM).

For more about why such a change is needed, check our new report, “KENTUCKY’S SCHOOL BASEDDECISION MAKING POLICY, A Closer Look.”

Are Kentucky’s education administration costs out of line? Teacher to other staff ratios indicate a problem

Interest in the administration costs associated with Kentucky’s public education system increased recently, so I decided to explore some available data. Several days ago, I wrote about “Are Kentucky’s education administration costs out of line?” That blog looked at education funding breakdowns from the US Census Bureau’s annually issued Public Education Finances series and found that general education administration costs in Kentucky are above national average and are especially questionable given our overall education spending.

Today, I examine data found in another long-running report series from the federal government, this time exploring the ratio of teachers to other staff in each state’s school system. The data comes from multiple years of issues of the Digest of Education Statistics. The exact table where the data is found varies from year to year, with the latest data coming from the Digest of Education Statistics 2016, Table 213.40, “Staff, teachers, and teachers as a percentage of staff in public elementary and secondary school systems, by state or jurisdiction: Selected years, fall 2000 through fall 2014.

Older data can be accessed from various editions of the digest, available online from this web page.

Here is how Kentucky’s teacher to other staff ratio matches up to the rest of the states through 2014, the latest year of data available.

Teacher to Staff Ratio to 2014 for Kentucky

As you can see, Kentucky has consistently ranked among the very worst for its very low ratio of teachers to other staff members in the school system. The contributions made by other staff are the subject of much concern, with a significant number consisting of aides who at least one major report says don’t add much educationally.

A report prepared for the Kentucky Department of Education in 2003 titled, “A State-Of-The-Art Approach to School Finance Adequacy in Kentucky,” discusses the educational contribution of aides on Page 21, saying “research generally shows they do not add value.” The report suggests not using aides in its recommendations for a comprehensive school reform model.

But, Kentucky is in fact using a lot of aides, and a lot of other non-teaching staff, too. And, it is clear our use of these non-teachers is out of proportion with what most other states do.

So, are we running schools as a jobs project for adults or an educational system for our kids? The graph above seems to indicate the answer might be too much of the former. Maybe that needs to change.

Even Democrat Polling Firm Finds Strong Support for School Choice

National School Choice Week 2018
Wow! The American Federation for Children recently hired Beck Research, which they identify as a Democratic polling firm, to survey the public about school choice. And, the results strongly show Americans like school choice.

Some highlights from the press release:

  • 63% of Likely 2018 Voters Support School Choice, including 41% who strongly support it. 72% of Latinos, 66% of African Americans, 61% of whites, 75% of Republicans, 62% of Independents, and 54% of Democrats support school choice.
  • 86% of voters believe that publicly-funded vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts should be available in some form.
  • 67% support a potential K-12 education tax credit proposal, despite the polarization of the electorate. The federal tax credit scholarship earns bipartisan support with 55% of Democrats, 69% of Independents, and fully 80% of Republicans favoring the possible measure.
  • 77% of Americans support giving the children of active military members the ability to access the school of their choice.
  • 70% of Democrats, 78% of Independents, and 81% of Republicans support Education Savings Accounts.
  • 72% support charter schools, and 83% support choice programs tailored to special needs students.
    That last bullet is particularly interesting as there is a misguided attempt in Kentucky to repeal last year’s charter school legislation. Responsible legislators need to know that special interest effort isn’t what most want.

Learn more about this new poll by clicking here.