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Bluegrass Beacon: Real reformers aren’t name callers

Ronda Harmon, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Councils, recently wrote that those who question the commonwealth’s contentious School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) approach toward governing schools “somehow stand in the way of improvement” and are “public school opponents.”

It’s a curious charge since groups representing superintendents, school boards and the business community openly support common-sense SBDM changes contained in legislation filed by Northern Kentucky Sen. John Schickel, who’s worked for years to improve the way schools are governed.

Schickel, R-Union, maintains superintendents and elected school board members – since they’re rightly held accountable – should have more say regarding how schools in their taxpayer-supported districts operate.

Does that make him one of those “public school opponents?”

Schickel’s district includes the high-performing Boone County Schools led by Superintendent Randy Poe.

Can Harmon really make the case that Poe, Kentucky’s 2013 Superintendent of the Year, is an “opponent” of public education just because he testified at an interim joint education committee meeting last summer regarding the considerable problems caused by current SBDM rules and their enforcement by state bureaucrats?

Poe’s not alone. Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said on a recent “Kentucky Tonight” program on KET that the current policy in which SBDM councils rather than superintendents hire principals “is really strange to me,” and that “superintendents would 100 percent agree” on changes that “would restructure the way our school-based decision making councils function and make them more of an advisory role.”

Doing so could also result in collateral benefits for students, like superintendents being able to place high-performing teachers in failing schools where their talent and experience are needed most.“

The real reason we don’t have our best teachers being placed into lower-performing schools is because schools and school-based decision making councils also hire the teachers rather than the superintendents and districts,” Shelton said. “Districts … need to be able to have the ability to place the best teachers in front of our most needy kids.”

While we’ve been critical in the past regarding some of Shelton’s comments about how the commonwealth compensates its teachers, Kentuckians would be hard-pressed to find a more ardent advocate for public education. Isn’t it strange to even hint that Shelton is a “public school opponent” because he wants to remove barriers hindering the flexibility of local school leaders to ensure students in their districts have the best teachers possible, and thus the optimum chance for academic success?

In certain cases, as noted in a new Bluegrass Institute analysis of some management audits in Priority Schools – the bottom 5 percent performers of all schools – SBDM councils actually stand in the way of removing those obstacles.

There’s also good reason to believe such obstacles don’t merely exist in those bottom-dwelling schools, either.

While we perhaps need more debate on precisely how SBDM councils function overall in our schools, legislators should find the spine during the current legislative session to stand with Shelton and his group, as well as the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky School Boards Association and state Chamber of Commerce, to allow superintendents the authority to hire principals at the schools in their districts and then hold those leaders accountable.

One question legislators should consider: If SBDM councils are such an effective way of governing schools, why does no other state – including most states where academic performance outstrips Kentucky – use this approach?

In any event, we should be skeptical of any so-called expert labeling anyone who calls for change or improvement in our schools “opponents” of public education.

Instead, let’s be wary about those obsessively committed to defending the status quo in Kentucky’s education system, which is moving neither far enough nor fast enough for our kids.

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.

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