Bluegrass Beacon: Why such hostility toward a promising policy?

BluegrassBeaconLogoThe Elizabethtown Independent School Board recently became the first local education oversight body in Kentucky to express collective hostility toward giving parents the option of a different type of public -school experience for their children.

It passed a resolution claiming a charter-school policy “unilaterally takes critically needed funds from local school districts and redirects them to charter schools, thereby debilitating the significantly underfunded system of funding for public education for all Kentucky schools.”

First, the whole assertion that Kentucky’s public education system is “significantly underfunded” might sound good for uninformed and ideologically driven resolutions, but it doesn’t add up.

Kentucky Department of Education financial reports indicate the commonwealth spent $13,574 per pupil during the 2014-15 school year and will spend $10.1 billion on K-12 education during the current biennial budget.

Elizabethtown Independent Schools got $16.7 million in total funding to educate around 2,400 students in 2014-15 – a 44-percent increase in real dollars from the 2006-07 school year.

Considering the nation went through a rotten recession and many parts of the commonwealth faced Depression-like economic conditions even as those funding increases occurred, is it unreasonable to assume that $10 billion to educate Kentucky’s students for this biennium at the very least doesn’t indicate dire funding conditions?

What’s dire: too many at-risk kids – especially children from low-income minority homes – get left way behind.

While much of the discussion concerning Kentucky’s achievement gap between white and black students has focused on Jefferson County, both the Elizabethtown and neighboring Hardin County school districts face serious gaps and issues concerning their performance with minorities.

The state’s K-PREP test scores indicate less than 12 percent of Elizabethtown’s black elementary school students were proficient in math during the 2015-16 school year.

White students’ 54 percent math-proficiency rate wasn’t anything to send home on the bus, either.

The whopping 42-percent gap, which is much larger than even the statewide 24-percent gap, is certainly something that black parents in Elizabethtown should be concerned about – especially considering few public-school options exist.

Even with a nonresident student agreement between the two districts, which allows parents to enroll their children in a neighboring district, there’s not much of a real choice.

Hardin County does have smaller white-minus-black achievement gaps – but only because white students aren’t doing as well as Elizabethtown’s whites; blacks perform about the same.

What options do black parents have in Hardin County, where only one in four middle-school black students is proficient in math?

Considering less than 60 percent of white high schoolers in Elizabethtown Independent and fewer than 50 percent in Hardin County schools are demonstrating proficiency in math, don’t white families also need options?

Matt Wyatt, Elizabethtown board chairman and a political consultant, in a recent op-ed offers a narrow-minded approach that attacks charter schools as threats to public education while ignoring the success of many charters in closing achievement gaps.

What’s his board’s plan for addressing these serious gaps?

If not charter schools, what proven alternative does the board support for closing the chasm?

Will charter schools fix all education problems?

Will they ensure every poor black child in Elizabethtown, Hardin County or Kentucky succeeds?

Probably not.

However, as Kentucky Board of Education member Gary Houchens, who teaches educational leadership at Western Kentucky University, points out, charter schools will give us the opportunity to at least reach some – maybe even a significant number of students who otherwise would lose out.

“The data make it clear that when students spend more than a year in a public charter school – especially if that student is from a low-income family or a minority – they do tend to achieve at higher levels than their demographically similar peers in traditional public schools,” Houchens, Ph.D., said.

Why would a school board be so hostile toward such a promising policy?

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