Bluegrass Beacon: KERA architect spreads fake news about education climb

BluegrassBeaconLogoDavid Hornbeck, an architect of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) who describes himself as a “consultant to the Kentucky legislature, 1989-1990,” claims in a recent op-ed opposing charter schools: “Kentucky’s children have made more progress than those of any other state in the nation.”

For such a claim to hold up under scrutiny of the evidence – something Hornbeck fails to provide even in the least amount to support his sunshiny analysis – it must totally disregard what happened to Kentucky’s black students, the commonwealth’s largest racial minority, after KERA came along.

Only four of the 28 states with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade math data needed to compare progress among black students from 1990 – the earliest available – to 2015 improved less than Kentucky’s blacks.

Meanwhile, other southern states like North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Arkansas matched or exceeded the national-average increase in black students’ math scores between 1990 and 2015.

Can it just be coincidence that each of those states has for years allowed primarily minority, low-income parents the opportunity to choose what’s often a better educational alternative for their children: charter schools?

It’s also not likely coincidental that Kentucky by not allowing its parents that same option of enrolling their children in charter schools never came close to any of these states in terms of academic improvement.

The General Assembly has now made that option available with passage of charter-school legislation during the waning days of this year’s legislative session.

Neither is it happenstance that KERA’s most ardent defenders –  including teachers-union representatives and longtime members of the education establishment – provide the most zealous opposition to school choice and feverishly hope the charter-school movement fails in the Bluegrass State.

At the very least, Hornbeck’s claim of “more progress” made by Kentucky’s children than in “any other state” shatters once you realize the commonwealth’s eighth-grade blacks improved by only one paltry point on NAEP reading scores between 1998 and 2015.

Is Hornbeck unaware of the performance of black students in Tennessee, which ranks fourth nationally for its increase in eighth-grade reading scores during that same 17-year period?

Might this be a good place to mention that Volunteer State parents have had the option of charter schools during all but four years of that 17-year period?

Travel further south to Florida, which offers a multitude of school-choice options in addition to charter schools – including vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and open-enrollment choices – and there you will find a state where black students, who trailed their fellow blacks in Kentucky by 10 points in 1998, are now four points ahead of their black peers in the Bluegrass State.

Hornbeck’s claim that Kentucky is a nation-beater doesn’t even hold up among Kentucky’s white students.

Whites comprise 80 percent of the commonwealth’s public-school population but only statistically significantly outscored their fellow whites in just two other states in eighth-grade math scores in 2015.

House Bill 940, which passed in 1990 and is better known as KERA, declares in Section 3: “Schools shall expect a high level of achievement from all students.”

Did Hornbeck, operating in his “consultant” role, get paid to write that sentence?

If so, doesn’t he owe taxpayers a refund considering the lack of progress among our neediest students since KERA became law 27 years ago?

These are the very children who most need charter schools and are the primary reason why House Bill 520 – which finally opens the doors to charters in Kentucky – made it through this year’s legislature.

Disadvantaged kids also are the reason why we must make sure local boards of education, which HB 520 designates as sole authorizers in 171 of Kentucky’s 173 school districts, give charter-school applicants a fair shot – something too many of these students haven’t found in our commonwealth’s KERA-based, one-size-fits-all public education system.

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.

BIPPS in Lexington Herald-Leader: Challenging KERA’s ‘success’

Some defenders of the education status quo contend that the existence of the Kentucky Education Reform Act renders charter schools useless in the Bluegrass State.

But staff education analyst Richard Innes challenges the claim, taking issue with KERA architect David Hornbeck’s recent assertions that “Kentucky children have made more progress than any other state in the union.”

Innes responds: The commonwealth’s chronic achievement gap makes it clear that KERA’s promise of all kids receiving a quality education remains sorely unfulfilled — most of all for the Bluegrass State’s largest racial minority group.

“The commonwealth’s chronic achievement gap makes it clear that KERA’s promise of all kids receiving a quality education remains sorely unfulfilled — most of all for the Bluegrass State’s largest racial minority group. The truth is, given their record of success with minorities, charters could help in Kentucky.

The truth is, given their record of success with minorities, charters could help in Kentucky.

KERA, despite Hornbeck’s claims, hasn’t.”

Read Richard’s entire op-ed here.

Bluegrass Institute — Charter-school bill: Will kids win?

BluegrassBeaconLogoThe Bevin administration and House Republican leadership – despite hard pushes for other platform priorities such as right-to-work and prevailing-wage repeal – may settle for a mediocre charter-school bill.

This is a testament to the stronghold the public-education complex has on our commonwealth and to its willingness to put money and control before students’ best interests.

Charter-school legislation has passed the state Senate for years, including Sen. Mike Wilson’s bill last year that sailed through with a 28-9 vote but ran aground before reaching the other end of the Capitol – a pattern we’ve seen for years.

Then came Election Night 2016 when the GOP took control of the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century.

Voters handed Republicans supermajority status in the historic November election and seemed to say – as they had to then-candidate Matt Bevin during the previous year’s gubernatorial campaign: “Go to Frankfort, make the tough decisions and don’t worry about your re-election.”

Legislators led by a new and energized majority leadership responded by passing seven bills in the session’s historic first week concluding with an equally momentous Saturday session despite threats from protesting union bosses in the halls of the Capitol to defeat them in the next election.

Then came the charter-school bills.

Rep. Phil Moffett’s House Bill 103 would have allowed mayors in Kentucky’s largest cities, the Council on Postsecondary Education as well as colleges and universities with accredited education colleges to serve as charter-school authorizers – a best practice working well in other states.

Then superintendents, teachers-union bosses and the public-education complex in general threatened to make this the last term in Frankfort for anyone supporting a strong charter-school bill.

Along came Rep. John “Bam” Carney’s House Bill 520, limiting authorizers to local school boards except for mayors in Metro Louisville and Lexington, albeit with an appeals process to the Kentucky Board of Education. That bill passed the Kentucky House and now sits in the Senate Education Committee.

So, education-complex threats may be strong enough to force Kentucky policymakers to settle for a bill, the mediocrity of which mirrors this state’s education system in which, as Moffett notes, only 51 percent of high-schoolers can read at grade level and just 38 percent are proficient in math.

The Bevin administration sees Carney’s bill as an opportunity to get the door opened for charter schools in one of only seven remaining states without charters.

But even Bevin conceded he “would have liked to have seen more than is in this bill” while insisting “we have to factor in what is possible.”

Another possibility, of course, is to wait until a stronger bill can be passed – not the first time we’ve mentioned in this column that route for serious consideration.

At the very least, facts should drive the debate that will take place in the coming days in Frankfort, including this one: charter-school creation is much-more robust in states with multiple authorizing agencies.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports there were 6,723 charter schools in the United States during 2015, of which 93 percent – or 6,241 – were in states with multiple authorizers. Only 482 – or 7 percent – exist in states that limit authorizers to local school boards.

For sure, the angst and debate regarding charter-school policy will test the political mettle of those sent to Frankfort by constituents assuming they would be in favor of strong reforms to our education system, which consumes 60 cents of every taxpayer dollar.

Will they stand up to the teachers unions’ uninformed and angry zealotry?

Will they fight for poor and at-risk children who stand to gain the most from great charter schools and who have no other voice but ours?

Will the best interests of thousands of young Kentuckians stuck in hundreds of mediocre and failing schools find a seat at the legislative table and a place in that debate?

Stay tuned.

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.

Event Alert: BIPPS scholar debating charter schools tonight

LSCDicksBluegrass Institute Scholar and Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) member Gary Houchens will participate in a town hall on charter schools at 6 pm today in Room 110 at Madisonville Community College Muhlenberg Campus, 406 W. Everly Brothers Blvd., Central City.

The event is free and open to the public.

Houchens, Ph.D., is associate professor and coordinator of the School Principal Certification program in Western Kentucky University’s Department of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research.

Tonight’s event is hosted by the Muhlenberg County Democratic Party Executive Committee said the event will be nonpartisan and will be held “debate style” according to media liaison Stacie Barton.

Houchens will be joined by fellow KBE member Ben Cundiff, chairman of Jackson Financial Corp.; Gay Adelmann, member of Save Our Schools Kentucky; Ellen Yonts Suetholz, attorney at Kircher, Suetholz & Associates, PSC; and Dr. Susan Edington, assistant professor of early childhood and elementary education at Murray State University and former KBE member.

Each presenter will speak for about 15 minutes, and at the end, those in attendance will have the opportunity to ask questions.

“We are trying to do more outreach in education on topics that are in front of the legislation right now and affect our local area,” Barton said. “It should be an interesting meeting and informative.”

Three charter school bills were filed before this year’s General Assembly deadline for introducing bills.

Find more about the Bluegrass Institute’s analysis of what makes a strong and weak charter school bills here and here.

Houchens is a former social studies teacher, assistant principal and district administrator who has served in both public and private school settings.

He recently led a School Choice Solutions Roundtable for the Bluegrass Institute. Watch his presentation here.


1Pager: Kentucky’s kids deserve a strong charter-school law

SPN 1 pager

News release: Groups stand together in support of robust charter-school policy

TFF-2016-Website-LogoFor Immediate Release: Tuesday, BIPPS LOGO
February 21, 2017                                                                    

Contact: Martin Cothran @ 859.329.1919, Jim Waters @  270.320.4376

(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — The Family Foundation of Kentucky and Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions have joined forces in calling for state lawmakers to seize the opportunity to pass the nation’s most robust charter-school law.

“Educational innovation is only possible if the conditions allow for it,” said Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky. “If a charter law does not allow for innovation, then there is likely to be no innovation.”

Charter schools are innovative public schools in which teachers and administrators are free of many of the regulations that tie the hands of capable educators in regular public schools and where a higher level of accomplishment is promised in exchange for the freedom to innovate.

A winning charter-school policy for Kentucky allows:

  • Authorizers beyond local school districts

For example, Rep. Phil Moffett’s House Bill 103 lets local school districts, mayors of Louisville and Lexington, public or private universities with accredited education colleges and Council on Postsecondary Education authorize the creation of charter schools. Only this freedom will ensure that these innovative schools are not hampered in their mission to provide families a quality education alternative.

  • An unbiased appeal opportunity before the Kentucky Board of Education

Charter-school applicants whose applications are denied by the aforementioned authorizers must have the possibility of another path by appeal to the state education board.

  • A robust process for alternative teacher certification.

Teacher certification requirements should allow for teachers to be trained outside the standard processes now available almost exclusively through teachers’ colleges. This would allow prospective teachers to gain exposure and expertise in content knowledge and innovative teaching methodologies unavailable in many existing teacher certification programs. One of the benefits of charters is their ability to offer innovative alternatives to establishment schools, a benefit that is made difficult to gain if educators are trained in the antiquated progressivist practices common in teachers’ colleges.

  • Charter schools in all public-school districts in Kentucky

Considering that 42 percent of Kentucky’s population lives in rural areas, we must ensure everyone –  from poor rural Kentuckians to minority students in our commonwealth’s urban, low-income neighborhoods –  the same equitable access to an excellent public education.

“A failure to allow for these freedoms could hamstring charters and result in schools no different than the failing schools to which they are intended as an alternative,” Cothran said. “Lawmakers should make sure they pass legislation that does not set up charters for failure, failure the educational establishment will use to prevent further change.”

Both organizations pledged to stand together and work toward bringing the hope and opportunity of a great education to the children and families of the commonwealth.

For comment and more information, contact Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky @ 859.329.1919 or Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters @ 270.320.4376.

Bluegrass Beacon: Set the table for a school-choice buffet

BluegrassBeaconLogoPresident Donald Trump’s administration is taking some cues from the productive Kentucky Legislature.

After a frenetic first week of the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly during which seven bills were passed, the new Trump administration offered a proportional amount of accomplishment during its first five days in the White House.

Trump took 15 major actions in his first five days, including steps toward ending Obamacare and withdrawing the nation from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a victory for Kentucky farmers, who grow more than 87,000 acres of tobacco annually.

I called for both actions in this column during the recent election season.

The Obama administration embedded its hatred of the tobacco companies into the 12-nation TPP deal, excluding these firms from protections available to all other industries against foreign governments taking property without compensation or seizing assets in the name of “public health.”

While the deal contained some attractive tax and tariff cuts, it’s unacceptable to single out a specific industry and its legal product based on ideology and the running amok of political correctness.

Still, it’s important for our nation’s security and for Kentucky farmers and manufacturers to maintain a strong, open trading relationship with willing countries.

As Frederic Bastiat, the great 19th century free-market French economist, believed: “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will.”

Democrats who lost the Kentucky House on the same night they turned over the keys to the White House complain about the feverish pace of it all.

Yet most of the legislation debated and passed in Frankfort during the first week in January – right-to-work, repeal of costly prevailing-wage mandates on public construction projects, making part-time politicians’ pensions transparent and pro-life bills – had been debated and passed by the state Senate for years.

School-choice legislation also fits that scenario.

It’s likely this session won’t end before Kentucky becomes the 44th state with a charter-school law and perhaps also the 18th state to turn tax-credit-friendly donations into scholarships allowing children from countless numbers of families access to a private education.

Louisville Rep. Phil Moffett’s charter-school legislation would offer Kentucky’s kids the opportunity to attend schools that will allow them, in many cases, to break the cycle of generations of poverty, illiteracy and failure.

Opponents continue to offer recycled claims about how empowering parents to choose the school that best fits their children’s educational needs somehow is a vast right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education.

But wait a sec’.

Charter schools are public schools.

Along with the reality that policies like Moffett’s bill haven’t caused an implosion of public education in those 43 other states is the expectation hardworking taxpayers have when they fork over their hard-earned dollars – $10.1 billion designated for K-12 schools in the commonwealth’s current biennial budget.

They want their money used for educating children, not propping up failing systems or sustaining jobs programs for adults.

While discussing his bill at a recent education forum in an inner-city church in West Louisville, Moffett told the largely minority crowd: it’s time to take a cue from its neighbor to the North.

Indiana is changing its approach – “to thinking about public education, not public-school systems,” the former GOP gubernatorial candidate said.

The shift has resulted in many more options for Hoosier State parents – from charter schools to vouchers to tax-credit scholarships and even individual tax credits for private-school enrollment and tax deductions for homeschooling families.

The Hoosier State has one of America’s biggest school-choice buffets and fastest-growing economies.

Kentucky will take major steps toward setting its table with the same kind of spread with similar results when it gets back in the kitchen on Feb. 7.

It can’t happen fast enough.

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.

Bluegrass Policy Brief — Charter Schools versus Magnet Schools: The differences are significant


By Richard G. Innes, Staff Education Analyst

As lawmakers prepare to resume the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly after already passing historic labor reforms, pension transparency requirements and pro-life bills this year, their attention now turns to education policy and a vigorous debate about making Kentucky the 44th state to allow charter schools. Charter schools are innovative public schools of choice designed by educators, parents and civic leaders that operate free of many rules and regulations governing conventional public schools.

Unsurprisingly, giving parents the opportunity to choose which public school best fits their children’s needs threatens the entrenched bureaucracy’s interests. So, smoke screens get erected by opponents of educational freedom. One of those smoke screens involves inaccurate claims about “magnet schools.” The truth is that significant differences exist between magnet and charter schools. While both are public schools, their admissions policies could not be more different.

Magnet Schools: Magnet schools are present in some districts in Kentucky, including in Jefferson and Fayette counties, including Louisville Male High School in Jefferson County and the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA at Bluegrass) serving Grades 4 through 8 in Fayette County.

Unlike standard public schools, which must enroll anyone living in their designated service area, magnet schools are highly selective and generally only admit exceptionally high-performing students. As the table below shows, student demographics in both Male High and SCAPA at Bluegrass are very different from the overall averages found in their school districts.[1] Perhaps most telling, both schools have far-lower poverty rates, as indicated by the eligibility for free and reduced-cost school lunches.

Charter Schools: In sharp contrast to schools like Male and SCAPA at Bluegrass, all charter schools in Kentucky would be open to any student who applies. Charter schools Charters V Magnetswithout sufficient space to serve all applicants would conduct random lotteries to fill the limited number of seats. In Kentucky, students would not be admitted to charter schools based on academic performance. None of the many charter bills proposed and debated in the General Assembly in recent years included language allowing the creation of such exclusive charter schools in the Bluegrass State.

Public charter schools in other states tend to be in high-needs, low-income neighborhoods and often have large enrollment percentages of minority students as well as those from low-income families. Thus, charter schools are targeted to serve very different needs from those served by exclusive magnet schools.

Charter schools often serve student groups habitually left behind in conventional public schools, as evidenced by large achievement gaps compared to upper-income white students found in conventional public schools. Kentucky’s magnet schools don’t serve large numbers of students from disadvantaged groups, don’t address gaps and are very unlike charter schools.

Richard G. Innes can be reached at 859-466-8198 or

[1] Source of demographic data: Kentucky School Report Card database for 2015-2016,

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.

Bluegrass Beacon: Provide multiple paths for charter-school creations

BluegrassBeaconLogoSchool-choice opponents in my Twitter domain are having 140-character conniption fits over President-elect Donald J. Trump’s stellar decision to choose Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos as the nation’s next education secretary.

They claim their opposition is because DeVos doesn’t have “classroom teacher” on her resume.

Yet what’s really at the heart of the pushback from DeVos’ detractors is her stout support for charter schools, which are public schools that promise a higher level of student achievement in exchange for the freedom from many of the burdensome regulations that often stymie innovation and hinder great teachers and administrators in traditional public schools.

These critics want Kentuckians to believe that any effort to give parents the option of sending their children to high-performing public charter schools is somehow a slap in the face to teachers or public education.

Yet the fact that Trump was handed the presidency and his party the super majority-sized keys to the Kentucky House of Representatives indicates that voters saw through these arguments as being little more than emotional riffraff unworthy of standing in the way of making the commonwealth the 44th state to include charter schools in its public-education universe.

Opponents now have decided that if they can’t keep a law from being passed, they will attempt to intimidate policymakers into passing a weak policy limiting the number of charter-school creations and the opportunities for charters that do open to succeed.

Leftover appointees from the previous Beshear administration not only kept the Kentucky Board of Education from endorsing charter schools but also succeeded in recently getting the body to recommend that only local school boards receive authorization to create charters.

Legislators who back a policy restricting charter-school applications to a single path through local school-district bureaucracies where staunch opposition to any type of parental choice often lurks will unwittingly support an approach that limits the number – and likely success – of future charter schools in Kentucky.

Per the Center for Education Reform (CER):

  • Around 75 percent of America’s charter schools are in states offering more than one path to authorization for credible entities applying to open a charter, including universities and local governments.
  • States with multiple authorizers “are also home to the highest quality charter schools, as evidenced by state test scores, numerous credible research studies and ongoing observation.”

CER observes that states limiting authorization of charter schools to local school boards “create hostile environments for charters because school boards often view charter schools as competition and reject applications not based on merit, but on politics.”

Without more than one authorizer, applicants who want to open a charter school have no alternative or opportunity to appeal outside the same system that fails many of the students who would find a better education in a charter.

Flashes of the kind of hostility we could expect from Kentucky edu-crats toward charter schools have been on full display in communities that previously had inter-district student-transfer agreements, which allowed parents to choose the best public school for their children to attend – even if the school was in a neighboring district outside the one in which they reside.

For years, hundreds of parents in communities from Jackson in the mountains to Murray in the West – and Corbin and Bowling Green in between – took advantage of these agreements between school districts.

However, because state law requires such agreements be signed by the both districts’ school boards in order for state funding to follow students to a neighboring district, bureaucrats and local school boards in failing districts – who were losing students and state education dollars to higher-performing ones – quit signing these agreements, thus denying hundreds of Kentucky children a better education.

What are the chances these same bureaucrats would approve high-performing charter schools in their districts?

Probably about the same as they gave Trump of winning the presidency.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at