The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear in a recent news conference claimed he would, if elected, appoint a new state Board of Education “on day one” and then would expect that new board would “select a new commissioner on day two.”
Beshear, the state’s current attorney general, wants to replace Wayne Lewis, Ph.D., Kentucky’s first black education commissioner, largely because he disagrees with Lewis’s support of public charter schools, which would give more parents – especially minority, low-income families in Kentucky’s urban areas – more viable opportunities when it comes to where their children are educated.
Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters responded to Beshear’s statement with the following (prepared) comments made on Thursday at a gathering of the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition in Louisville’s West End in support of Dr. Lewis and his efforts to hold the public education system accountable and give the Bluegrass State’s parents more alternatives when it comes to choosing where their children are educated:
Good afternoon. I’m Jim Waters, and I serve as president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions.
For more than a decade, the Bluegrass Institute has been honored to work with this coalition of pastors – the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition – who faithfully serve their congregations and communities.
For too many years of this association, the academic achievement gaps have been downplayed or sometimes downright ignored by those in Frankfort charged with creating and implementing Kentucky’s public-education policy. But that’s no longer the case.
When Dr. Wayne Lewis became Kentucky’s education commissioner in April 2018, the achievement gaps between low-income minorities and whites and their peers from primarily white, middle-and-higher-income homes finally started receiving the attention it must have if we’re going to fix this serious problem and close these gaps.
The newly released K-PREP (Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress) test scores reinforce the severity of these gaps and the ongoing need educational leaders to address it.
Since Dr. Lewis began his tenure, the reporting of information related to these gaps has greatly improved to the point that we can now report not only on the academic-education gaps between white and black students, but we now have the information regarding those gaps between those from lower-income homes who are eligible for the free-and reduced-lunch program and their peers from higher-income homes.
For example, we now not only know that there’s a nearly 62% gap between the 79% of Bloom Elementary white students reading at grade-level proficiency compared to only 17.1% of black students, but we also know that there’s a nearly 41% reading-proficiency gap between students from higher-income homes compared to their peers who are eligible for free or reduced price meals.
Because the KDE under Dr. Lewis’s leadership is now following federal requirements – which require this information be collected and reported from individual schools, we now know that not only is there a nearly 28% reading-proficiency gap between white and black high school students statewide, but we also now know that nearly 59% of high-schoolers from higher-income homes are reading proficiently for their grade level compared to less than one in three students of any race who are eligible for free-and-reduced-lunches.
We believe Dr. Lewis has a commitment not only to closing the gaps not just of black and white students but also the academic-achievement disparities between those who come from higher and lower-income homes.
No child should be left behind because of their zip code or size of their parents’ paychecks.
And the severity of the situation here in the West End makes it imperative that Dr. Lewis be allowed to remain in his role and see this effort through. Doing so, we believe, will bring significant improvement in our public education system across the commonwealth, including here in the West End, where:
- Less than 19% of black students at Central High and less than 9% at The Academy at Shawnee demonstrated math proficiency on the latest KPREP state testing scores, compared to more than 40% of white students at each school, resulting in gaps of more than 19% at each school.
- A gap of more than 40 points exists between white and black students at Brandeis Elementary School in both math and reading proficiency rates.
Dr. Lewis’s commitments to policies that would address not only the achievement gaps but also in some other important areas deserves the recognition and praise of every Kentucky parent and taxpayer who cares about the future of education in our commonwealth.
- While Kentucky’s high graduation rates have been praised for years, the truth is that the standards have not met the hype. Those numbers have not translated into higher college-admissions-and-graduation rates or employment success.
In fact, before Dr. Lewis became commissioner, there were no real dependable graduation standards.
So while the Bluegrass Institute looks forward to the day that the standards will be made even more rigorous, the fact that Dr. Lewis has implemented standards that represent enormous improvement and move Kentucky in the right direction by requiring basic competency in key academic areas while giving students greater flexibility to pursue apprenticeship-type training or early college credits.
- The Kentucky Department of Education under Dr. Lewis’s leadership has successfully collaborated with the legislature, Education & Workforce Development Cabinet, Council on Postsecondary Education and Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) to expand high school students’ access to general education and career and technical education (CTE) dual-credit coursework.
The resulting scholarship programs arising from this collaboration mean Kentucky students now have the opportunity to earn more than 30 college credits with tuition and fees paid even before graduating from high school. Imagine how that could help alleviate student debt!
- Lewis also excels in terms of focusing on students with special learning needs.
There are more than 100,000 students in Kentucky’s public education system who have been identified as having some type of learning disability (mild, moderate or severe) and have and Individualized Education Programs (IEP). Dr. Lewis has worked diligently to ensure that these most vulnerable students in our commonwealth have the opportunities they need to receive a quality education and become productive citizens.
- He’s also implemented policies to fight the summer learning slide and the learning loss leading up to a new school year that too many kids experience.
Finally, I’d also like to say a word about the Kentucky Board of Education.
Perhaps never before in Kentucky’s history have we had a board that’s as committed overall to true reform – especially reforms addressing these large gaps we’ve address today – through policies that include more transparency, more accountability and more opportunities for parents and guardians to find the school that best fits their child’s needs.
Now is not the time to go back.
Plus, something that all Kentuckians need to understand and which, apparently, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is counting on voters not grasping – no governor can come in and “on day one” change the Board of Education.
Most of the current board members recently began serving four-year terms and unless they decide to resign will be casting the vision and guiding future policy of Kentucky’s education system. For that, we’re supportive, thankful and hopeful that the gaps will close, choices will widen and no child in Kentucky will be left behind.