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 He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.

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.

Bold new evidence: Kentucky does not lead the nation for education improvement

Claim especially misleading for state’s black students

Truth supports need for charter schools in Kentucky

As arguments swirled the past few months over charter schools, Kentuckians have been hearing claims that their state already leads the nation for the most educational improvement since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA). As a consequence, that argument goes, this means Kentucky doesn’t need charters.

The latest example of this “leads the nation” claim is found in a March 10, 2017 Herald-Leader Op-Ed by David Hornbeck, one of the major architects of KERA. Hornbeck asserts:

“Kentucky children have made more progress than any other state in the nation.”

It’s a bold statement, but is it true?

And, is it true for all Kentucky’s children?

To explore these questions, we fired up the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Main NAEP Data Explorer web tool. We used data from the NAEP Data Explorer to assemble the two tables below, which show how Kentucky’s eighth-grade blacks stack up against other states that also had scores for these children of color reported for both the earliest and latest years of NAEP state testing.

Table 1 shows the NAEP Grade 8 math results black students in the listed states received back in 1990, the year KERA was enacted, and 2015 scores – the latest available. The table is sorted by the change in the NAEP Scale Score for math in each state across the 1990 to 2015 period.

Table 1

Grade 8 Math Improvement for Blacks for 1990 and 2015 Ranked

As you can see, Hornbeck’s assertion isn’t just wrong, it’s very wrong when we talk about improvements for Kentucky’s largest racial minority group compared to other states with usable NAEP data for black students.

Kentucky lands nearly at the bottom of the stack when we rank each state’s increase in NAEP Grade 8 Math Scale Scores for black students over time. Only four of the 28 states with data available progressed even less than Kentucky.

If we only consider southern states listed in Table 1, we find that North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Arkansas all matched or exceeded the national average increase in black students’ math scores between 1990 and 2015. Kentucky never came close to any of them.

By the way, all of those five Southern states have charter schools. At present, aside from Kentucky, only Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia don’t have charters. Thus, except for West Virginia, all the states listed above Kentucky in Table 1 have charter school laws. That is something to think about.

[Read more…]

Bluegrass Institute report raises strong concerns about continued achievement gaps and graduation failures in Jefferson County

For Immediate Release: Monday, Feb. 29, 2016BIPPS Logo_pick

(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Legislators and educators made a promise more than a quarter-century ago when the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was passed: In return for vastly increased education spending, the Bluegrass State was going to do a much better job of educating its students – especially the commonwealth’s racial minorities.

However, a new Bluegrass Institute report, “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools: The 2016 Update,” is available at and provides highly unsettling evidence that the promise has not been kept.

“This is one of the most disturbing reports on Kentucky’s educational performance that the Bluegrass Institute has ever released,” Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters said at a news conference today in front of the Jefferson County Public Schools’ central offices at the VanHoose Education Center, 3332 Newburg Road.

Report author and Bluegrass Institute staff education analyst Richard Innes in the 2016 update finds notable declines in scores for Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) blacks on both eighth-grade EXPLORE and the 10th-grade PLAN. White-minus-black achievement gaps widened in all subject areas between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 school years and the percentages of blacks meeting EXPLORE’s readiness benchmark scores are lower now, as well. PLAN results are nearly as dismal.

While small improvements have occurred in some areas of the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) math testing, the new report finds 2015 white-minus-black math-achievement gaps exceed 10 percentage points in 116 out of total of 134 JCPS schools that reported full data. Worst of all, data released by the Kentucky Department of Education show that the academic-achievement gaps at Dunn Elementary and Noe Middle schools exceed an astonishing 50 percentage points.

There also is a geographic pattern to JCPS’ academic-achievement gap with the largest disparity in math found in the more-affluent sections on Louisville’s East Side.

The report also answers another mystery: why a number of Louisville high schools officially report notably higher graduation rates for blacks instead of whites. Using a new analysis technique developed by Innes, it appears the reason for this unexpected reverse achievement gap in graduation rates is due to an extreme and unbalanced amount of social promotion to a high-school diploma in Louisville’s schools.

Innes finds a 20-point difference in the reported high school graduation rates for whites and the number of white ninth-grade students who graduate four years later ready for either college or a career. For blacks, however, the differential is an astonishingly high 42.2 points – indicating many black high-school graduates in Jefferson County are getting hollow pieces of paper.

“Burdened taxpayers and concerned parents want to know what the district’s plan is for closing these unacceptable gaps and ensuring that the promise of KERA is kept: that all students, no matter the color of their skin, socioeconomic status or zip code, can achieve and succeed at the highest levels,” Waters said. “Plus, it’s not unreasonable to expect a school district with a $1.4 billion budget to come up with some ideas other than simply throwing more of taxpayers’ hard-earned money at the problem.”

The Bluegrass Institute is Kentucky’s first and only free-market think tank and is dedicated to advancing sound public-policy solutions based on credible data and its principles of individual liberty, economic prosperity and limited – and transparent – government. For interview information, please contact report author Richard Innes at 859-466-8198 or

Education reform: After 25 years, are we getting bang for our bucks?

innes As Leon Mooneyhan points out in his Courier-Journal op-ed, Kentucky’s long-term struggles with education reform are now a quarter of a century old.

Imagine that – a full quarter-century.

So you would think that, by now, more than an adequate amount of time has passed for some of the remarkable things Mooneyhan claims happened to have actually occurred. Unfortunately, that isn’t the reality.

I’m a data guy. So when Mooneyhan writes, “We are taking a laser-like focus on data…to close achievement gaps,” I pay attention.

Clearly, his laser must be malfunctioning.

Back in 1992, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) said Kentucky’s fourth-grade white students scored 214 on the reading assessment while the state’s blacks only scored 196 – a gap of 18 points.

In the latest 2013 NAEP fourth grade reading test, Kentucky’s whites scored 227, but the state’s blacks only got a 204 – a gap of 23 points and a notable increase from the early KERA-era scores.

Also, fourth-grade NAEP math scores show Kentucky’s white-minus-black score gap increased by 3 points between 1992 and 2013. No improvement was posted in grade 8 math results, either. The white-minus-black score gap remained flat at 23 points between 1992 and 2013.

Furthermore, while Kentucky’s scores did improve on NAEP between 1992 and 2013, so did the scores for other states.

As a result, Kentucky’s white fourth-graders back in 1992 didn’t score statistically significantly higher in math than whites in any other state. By 2013, our fourth-grade whites could only claim bragging rights over one state – West Virginia – once the statistical sampling error in the NAEP was properly considered.

That’s not much progress for a quarter-century effort.

In 2013, our eighth-grade whites still only bested one state in math – that’s all. And, Kentucky’s blacks didn’t fare much better. In 1992, they statistically significantly outscored their counterparts in only three other states. In 2013, they bested blacks in only four other states.

Kentucky’s blacks suffered a much-worse decline in NAEP’s fourth-grade math results. In 1992, our blacks bested counterparts in 11 other states. By 2013, our blacks only bested those in three other states.

With NAEP reporting some depressingly low proficiency rates across the board, it’s clear that education reform is, at best, far – far – from done in the Bluegrass State.

In 2013, only 33 percent of Kentucky’s white students were proficient in eight-grade math while for blacks the proficiency rate was far lower at just 11 percent. Surely Mr. Mooneyhan isn’t going to claim much progress for our kids of color when their most-current proficiency rate is scarcely more than one in 10 students.

Given these facts, you can understand why I’m a little concerned by Mooneyhan’s closing comments that “…since 1989 when Kentucky decided to become educated, public schools have proven we’re good on our word.”

The jury is very much still out on that promise.

However, I do agree with his point that: “An educated workforce is essential to Kentucky’s economic growth and prosperity. An uneducated state is a state without a future.”

The problem is, with a quarter-century of seriously increased spending on education, Kentucky is not becoming educated nearly fast enough to keep up with the competition.

Time – along with our scarce tax dollars – is running out.

Richard G. Innes is staff education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Contact him at

(Minor technical updates added May 12, 2014)