Kentucky’s ‘Academic Standards Review and Revision Process’ gets under way

But, there are problems

The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) recently held a press conference to announce the plan of attack related to the new Senate Bill 1’s requirements to review and revise the state’s academic education standards. There is going to be a lot of action in this area over the next few years for subjects like science and social studies, but the process of review for the state’s English language arts (ELA) and math standards has already started. The first step involves a public comment period that will run until September 15.

However, there may be some challenges with getting this public comment period right.

In fact, it appears things might be getting stacked to preserve the status quo as much as possible. That might not be in the best interests of our kids.

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Bluegrass Beacon: ‘Sorry’ no longer sufficient

BluegrassBeaconLogo“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” said the late Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who was born in New York City in 1906, joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, worked in computer programming following the war, resumed active service at the age of 60 and became the nation’s oldest serving naval officer before retiring in 1986.

Put another way, Hopper’s saying encourages: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”

Most of us would find such an approach acceptable in the field of computer programming.

Had Hopper been as lethargic as most in that field during her day, she never would have led a team which created the world’s first computer programming language compiler.

However, it’s never “a good idea” to break the law, including laws designed to protect not only the rights but practical abilities of citizens to hold government agencies and officials accountable – even if the unlawful activity is accompanied by offenders’ contrition after the fact.

The Corbin Public Library Board was contrite following an attorney general’s ruling that the board violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act by the way it conducted several of its meetings in 2015 and 2016.

It should have been, considering it failed to give notice of special board and committee meetings, chronicle and approve minutes of its meetings or observe the requirements for entering closed sessions all while conducting meetings in a locked building.

Yes, locked.

Oftentimes, such violations occur because boards or agencies know their decisions will be unpopular with the taxpaying public.

Library boards in some parts of the commonwealth have acted brashly in recent years, especially when it comes to squeezing taxpayers to fund elaborate, unneeded and expensive building projects.

But the Open Meetings Act – the law since 1974 – requires that if you’re going to attempt to raid taxpayers’ wallets, you can’t do it behind pulled blinds and locked doors.

What makes the Corbin library board’s remorse somewhat hollow is that members knew – or at least had numerous opportunities to get training in – the law yet chose to ignore it and those chances, adding weight to the assertion of transparency experts that Kentucky’s sunshine laws are light on penalties.

Even though attorneys general rulings in cases involving the open meetings and open records acts – the latter established in 1976 – carry the force of law, they’re missing a matching set of teeth.

Agencies can ignore it, say “sorry” when confronted with violations and suffer no real penalties, unless the whole matter ends up in a courtroom.

This does little to force government entities to seriously consider the law when deciding where, how and when to meet and what public business to consider, and doesn’t deter future shenanigans.

Some agencies, when called on their violations, don’t even bother with “sorry.”

When the Bluegrass Institute in 2015 prevailed in a legal challenge to the Kentucky Board of Education involving a committee tasked with finding an executive headhunting agency to lead the search for a new commissioner that wrongly conducted its meetings by telephone, not only were there no penalties involved, board members at that time attempted to downplay the attorney general’s ruling and the wrongness of their own actions.

They stubbornly refused to even consider implementing the institute’s proposed, reasonable and cost-free remedy: open meetings training for its members by a representative of the attorney general’s office.

Still, progress is being made.

Instructions were given to board members recently appointed to the KBE board on their first day in office regarding their responsibilities involving open meetings and records.

Once citizens become more aware of the importance of and engaged in defending, enforcing and strengthening the sunshine laws, “sorry” will no longer be sufficient.

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

Holding public records hostage

COG LOGOPublic agencies regularly complain about the three working days’ statutory deadline for responding to an open records request.

“Responding,” in this context, means deciding whether to honor or deny a request, after locating and reviewing the records identified in that request, and making the records accessible to the requester after three days has elapsed. It does not mean acknowledging receipt of a request on the third day but delaying final action and disclosure of the records indefinitely. Lawmakers undoubtedly adopted a short turnaround for agency response in recognition of the fact that “the value of information is partly a function of time.”

While employed as an instructor at UK’s School of Journalism, former hostage Terry Anderson recounted his five-year struggle with federal agencies to secure access to records relating to the government’s efforts to secure his release from his Hezbollah kidnappers during his nearly seven-year captivity.

He described his bemusement when agency officials suggested that he obtain signed releases from his former captors to expedite disclosure of responsive records and protect his captors’ privacy. He shared his disappointment and frustration when the records ultimately released to him largely consisted of newspaper articles and photos.

In the case recognizing that “the value of information is partly a function of time,” the U.S. Department of Justice postponed access to requested records for eight years. The federal court decided that the record on appeal did not support the eight-year delay.

The court acknowledged that the Freedom of Information Act, which governs access to records of federal agencies, “doubtless poses practical difficulties for federal agencies,” but refused to “repeal it by a construction that vitiates any practical utility it may have.“  In other words, the court was unwilling to erode the principle of timely access to public records as an accommodation to the agency’s burden, real or imagined, and suggested that the agency present its concerns to Congress.

In 17-ORD-082, issued recently,  Kentucky Attorney General’s office admonished Louisville Metro Government for failing to explain the reasons for a one-and-a-half month delay in producing  records responsive to a series of broadly worded requests relating to an EEOC complaint of sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation filed by an employee of the Louisville Zoo.

Nevertheless, the attorney general found that the record on appeal supported the delay in producing the records beyond the three-day deadline as Louisville presented proof that just one of the multiple requests implicated more than 23,000 records.

Delays in production of public records by state and local agencies in Kentucky may pale in comparison to delays at the federal level, but are no less offensive to the principle that “the value of information is partly a function of time.” Perhaps the solution to this and other problems lies in statutory revision of the 40-year-old law that is faithful to its strongly worded statements of legislative policy.

Amye Bensenhaver is director of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government.  She is one of the foremost experts on Kentucky’s nationally recognized open records and open meetings laws, having written nearly 2,000 legal opinions forcing government entities to operate in the open during a 25-year career as an assistant attorney general in the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. 

Beshear intervenes in court actions involving sexual misconduct investigations to protect OAG’s ability to resolve open records disputes

COG LOGOAttorney General Andy Beshear has intervened in open records appeals pending in the Fayette and Franklin Circuit courts, and is seeking to obtain permission to intervene in a similar appeal in Warren Circuit Court in cases involving his office (OAG) having access to information regarding Title IX sexual misconduct investigations of university employees.

His goal? To ensure that public agencies don’t deny his office critical information in deciding open records disputes by defying his staff’s requests for additional documentation from the agencies to substantiate their positions, which the law requires.

There are few, if any other, instances in which an attorney general has intervened in a circuit court appeal of his own office’s decision in an open records dispute, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

KRS 61.880(2)(c) assigns the burden of proof in an open records dispute to the public agency and unambiguously states that in rendering a decision in such a dispute, the attorney general “may request additional documentation from the agency for substantiation. . . .[and] a copy of the records involved but they shall not be disclosed.”

Agencies that defy this provision have been sternly rebuked by the courts.

In Cabinet for Health and Family Services v. Todd County Standard, Inc., the court admonished the Cabinet’s “blatant[] refus[al] to respond to the Attorney General’s specific questions, . . .intentionally  frustrat[ing] the Attorney General’s statutory review under KRS 61.880.” That court concluded that an agency “cannot benefit from intentionally frustrating the Attorney General’s review of an open records request.”

The Todd County Standard opinion was issued in December 2015. Nevertheless, the University of Kentucky refused in 2016 to comply with the OAG’s requests for additional documentation as well as a copy of the disputed records in an appeal involving its own student newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel.

The OAG did not enjoy the same luxury of ignoring his statutory duties that UK apparently believed it enjoyed relative to KRS 61.880(2), and in 16-ORD-161  the OAG determined that UK failed to meet its burden of proof in denying The Kernel’s request. UK appealed that decision to Fayette Circuit Court. Other universities across the state followed suit in companion appeals involving their institutions – including Western Kentucky University’s appeal to the Warren Circuit Court – emulating the flagship university’s defiance of the unambiguous statutory requirement and “intentionally frustrat[ing] the Attorney General’s review under KRS 61.880.”

Without this essential tool, the attorney general cannot conduct a meaningful review of the issues presented to him for resolution, which are part of the statutory duties of his office. He becomes a mere “rubber stamp” for agencies disinclined to expose their conduct to the light of public scrutiny.

UK, KSU and WKU’s defiance undermines a critical function reserved to the OAG to reduce the number of open records appeals clogging the courts and to encourage expeditious dispute resolution at no cost to citizens.

The universities are wrong, and Andy Beshear is right.

–Amye Bensenhaver is director of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government. She is one of the foremost experts on Kentucky’s nationally recognized open records and open meetings laws, having written nearly 2,000 legal opinions forcing government entities to operate in the open during a nearly 25-year career as an assistant attorney general in the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. 

Seven Myths About Education

Bluegrass scholar Prof. Gary Houchens has his own, great blog, and one of his new entries is a really though-provoking winner. In “Seven Myths About Education,” Houchens discusses a book with the same title that takes a lot of what we hear are “proven facts” about education to the wood shed.

Check out what the book and Houchens believe about these seven myths:

• facts prevent understanding
• teacher-led instruction is passive
• the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything
• you can always just look it up
• we should teach transferable skills
• projects and activities are the best ways to learn
• teaching knowledge is indoctrination

If you are a parent, ask yourself if any of these myths are driving what happens in your child’s classroom. Your child’s future could depend on it.

Bluegrass Beacon – Missing: Checks and balances for school council

BluegrassBeaconLogoMasterminds of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) intended by choosing to establish School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils as schools’ governing bodies to deal with nepotism primarily in rural areas.

Such favoritism did result in abuse of power, often in smaller districts which some superintendents treated as their own personal fiefdoms by hiring family members and doling out jobs as a form of political patronage.

Little whistleblowing usually occurred considering school districts are the largest employers in many smaller communities; locals fortunate enough to get hired by these districts kept their mouths shut and families fed in areas where jobs are scarce.

But how does it help improve our students’ educational opportunities if we merely trade in an old form of dysfunction for a replacement policy that breeds a different kind of fiefdom by removing proven chains-of-command or any semblance of checks-and-balances on these decision-making councils?

KERA gave control of most critical decisions regarding personnel, curriculum and how schools’ allocated funds are spent to SBDM councils, which, by law are controlled by teachers and staff while relegating administrators, parents or other “outside” members to the minority.

Teachers even get the final say regarding the hiring of their own bosses.

Office of Education Accountability (OEA) edicts regularly reprimand superintendents and even elected school-board members just for commenting on personnel or spending decisions.

Board members have no say in such matters.

Garrard County school board member Larry Woods was called out in a recent OEA report for “overstepping his authority as a school board member” simply for passing along constituents’ comments about who should fill open positions in the district.

So, while Woods is expected to cheerlead for the district, heaven help him if he tries to have any input into the hiring of a new coach or expresses his constituents’ desire that a Garrard Countian be hired to fill a guidance-counselor position.

Fayette County school board member Melissa Bacon’s proverbial knuckles got rapped like the Sisters used to dole out to misbehaving miscreants in Catholic schools for wanting good people hired and poor performers fired in a district with years of huge achievement gaps between poor minority students and their middle-to-upper class white peers.

Bacon’s fellow Fayette board member Amanda Ferguson resigned in November after serving a decade following an OEA report taking her to task for criticizing the work of that failing district’s employees based on her constituents’ complaints.

If elected officials can be thrown under the bus with little, if any, consequence or accountability, why even have an elected school board?

The answer, of course, is that the commonwealth’s constitution requires an elected entity to collect all those school taxes extracted from hard-working Kentuckians each payday.

However, local citizens are more likely to reach out to their elected board members with concerns about schools than to some internal bureaucratic council few know about or even consider legitimate.

Besides, isn’t it unfair to hold superintendents and school board members accountable for funding, personnel or curriculum matters while denying them the authority needed to address those situations, or at the very least have some reasonable input?

By denying involvement on the part of school board members, the system, by proxy, rejects parental, citizen, taxpayer and voter participation.

Kentucky’s current system forces superintendents and board members to lead from behind as they are prohibited by law from influencing SBDM prerogatives unless and until a school sinks all the way to the bottom and becomes a “Priority School.”

Charter-school debates often include opponents calling for freeing existing public schools from regulations that tie the hands of teachers and administrators.

Legislators should call their bluff, rid the state of the scourge of KERA’s SBDM – Sen. John Schickel’s efforts to return common sense to school leadership would be a good place to start – and reemploy the chosen-leader-answers-to-the-board model used by successful charter schools nationwide.

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

New Education Week/NPR reporting shows Kentucky’s education spending is low

BUT, school spending in Kentucky doesn’t correlate to better academic performance

Some of the more radical public school supporters in Kentucky are complaining on social media – again – about the state’s relatively low spending per pupil compared to the rest of the nation. This time, they point to a recent article from Education Week with a map that color codes education spending in each school district across the country. Districts shaded in red and orange spend below the national average while those coded in shades of green spend above the norm. Kentucky, of course, is heavily shaded in orange and red.

But, there is a dirty little secret those spend-more-on-education-even-if-we-can’t-afford-it social media folks aren’t telling you – there is no correlation between higher education spending and better school performance.

And, Kentucky’s financial and testing data for the very same year cited by EdWeek and NPR – 2013 – proves that.

The PDF table I created, the Correlation for Spending and Math and Reading P Rates in 2013, shows total per pupil expenditures in each Kentucky school district in 2013. The table also shows the average proficiency rate in math and reading combined for each district in 2013 KPREP testing. I calculated that overall average for each district from the simple average of each district’s elementary, middle and high school math and reading scores. For districts without high schools, the average only was computed across elementary and middle school results.

I then ran a standard statistical calculation called a “correlation” to determine the relationship between those district spending amounts and their combined math and reading proficiency rates.

That correlation was -0.070, which is about as close as it gets to no correlation what so ever.

So, in Kentucky at least, spending more, or less, in 2013 didn’t have any relationship with better school performance.

This means simply throwing more money at education isn’t going to get us what we really want, which is much better performance for our students.

It would be MUCH better if our educators looked at those districts which are getting above average results with modest amounts of funding to try and figure out how to do the job more economically, not more expensively.

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Private school vouchers help level the playing field

An Op-Ed from the Cincinnati Enquirer offers some interesting counters to those who criticize the use of school vouchers that allow former public school students with low family incomes to attend a private school of their choice instead.

The Op-Ed’s author, Aaron Churchill, points to a number of positive impacts from vouchers such as an opportunity for students who are not being well served by their public school to seek an alternative with higher potential. He also takes issue with critics that claim voucher programs don’t really do better with these students, pointing out that 14 of 18 top quality studies do show vouchers improve results.

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State looks for legal help to examine JCPS collective bargaining agreements

The Courier-Journal reports that the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) is now advertising for legal help to dig into collective bargaining contracts with Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) as part of the department’s ongoing and massive management audit of this troubled school system.

According to the Courier, the KDE

“…said it wants an analysis as to whether the contracts were negotiated in good faith, followed best practices and focused only on areas that were permissive subjects of bargaining, among other things.”

It certainly seems like KDE already smells smoke here and wants to see if there is a real fire behind it.

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Teacher staffing in Kentucky still very problematic

We have written very frequently in the past about Kentucky’s very abnormal and low ratio of teachers to other staffers in our public school system (such as here, here and here, to cite only a few examples).

The problem is that when other staff members bloat up the manning in a school, teachers’ salaries inevitably suffer.

Recently released data in the latest Digest of Education Statistics for 2016 allow us to update our ranking graph for teacher staffing in Kentucky versus other states’ and Washington, DC’s schools.

As you can see in the graph below, we have not improved the situation.

Teacher to Staff Ratio to 2014 for Kentucky

In fact, back in 1989, the year before Kentucky’s education reform act was passed, teachers in Kentucky’s public schools made up 50.1 percent of the entire school staffing and we ranked No. 43 for our staffing ratio. As of the latest data for 2014, Kentucky’s teacher-to-other-school-staff ratio shrank to only 42.8 percent.

Thus, as of 2014, Kentucky now ranks No. 49 for its very low teacher-to-total-school-staff ratio a ranking virtually unchanged since the early 1990s. And, that has bad implications both for teachers’ salaries and educational performance, too.

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