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Bluegrass Beacon: Time for an all-out offensive against failure

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.

It’s often the coach who gets forced out even though it’s the players who lose games.

Sometimes education commissioners resign under pressure, as Stephen Pruitt did, even though the entire system shares responsibility for Kentucky’s black eighth-grade students’ abysmal 9 percent proficiency rate in math and the growing, unacceptably large achievement gaps between whites and blacks in key academic subjects.

Pruitt, a former high school chemistry teacher, stepped down with first-class dignity following the appointment of several new Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) members. Wayne Lewis, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Educational Leadership Studies, will serve as interim commissioner.

Newly released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores reveal that Lewis, Ph.D., is taking over an education team that’s neither getting the ball down the court nor scoring nearly enough touchdowns for Kentucky’s kids – especially those who come to school with two strikes already against them. Along with that 9 percent black math-proficiency rate in 2017 – which was even lower than in 2015, when only 12 percent of blacks tested proficient – fewer than 1 in 3 Kentucky white students demonstrated proficiency in eighth-grade math. Blacks perform so poorly that the NAEP proficiency gap between them and their white schoolmates is a tragic 23 points.

Gov. Matt Bevin, who has now appointed all KBE voting members, said he’s “not happy” that thousands more elementary and middle-school students across Kentucky failed to reach proficiency in reading and math in 2017 than did in 2015. Clearly, neither is Lewis, an unapologetic voice for charter schools. Neither should taxpayers, parents, legislators, educators, administrators or school board members.

“For too many children in our state, the only public school option available to them is a failing school, or a school that cannot – or will not – meet their learning needs,” Lewis, Ph.D., wrote in a Bluegrass Institute online debate about charter schools in 2014.

Lewis added that “students attending charter schools had greater learning gains than their traditional public school peers in reading and equivalent learning gains in mathematics,” and “performance differences between students attending charter schools and their traditional public school peers were strongest among economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students who were (English Language Learners).”

The latest NAEP Scale scores confirm Lewis’ concerns are as true – or perhaps even truer – now as then as black students in Atlanta’s charter schools are no longer just “equivalent” but have surpassed their black traditional public school peers in NAEP math and reading. Atlanta’s black eighth-grade charter school students outscored their traditional public school peers in math, 273-251 – a whopping 22-point difference – on the latest NAEP.

Naysayers, turf-protectors and status-quo defenders like outgoing state education board member Roger Marcum wondered aloud to reporters whether the appointment of Lewis and the new KBE members represents “an assault on public education as whole.”

Stephanie Winkler, who heads the Kentucky Education Association – the state’s largest teachers’ union – accused Bevin of going on the “offensive against public education.” Winkler’s comments are understandable since the union’s priorities are not centered on students’ needs and performance but around keeping its adult members satisfied and protecting them from accountability for these academic failures.

Does Marcum grasp that the widening academic-achievement gaps between Kentucky’s whites and blacks from 2015 to 2017 occurred while he was on a state education board which, until Bevin’s appointments, was controlled by fuzzy-math and whole-language reading progressives who mostly disdain charter schools while fully embracing unproven educational fads?

Why wasn’t Marcum declaring an all-out “assault” on the failure of the commonwealth’s public education system to close these gaps and fulfill the Kentucky Education Reform Act’s promise of educational opportunity for every child?

It seems certain that the new education coach wouldn’t have been Marcum’s pick, but that should bode well for the future of Kentucky’s students.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps.

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