Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday recently rocked the boat when he likened persistently failing Louisville schools to "academic genocide."  This is no verbal torpedo launched by a right winger. Rather, it’s a shot across the bow from the educational establishment's admiral. Holliday said he used the term in an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal’s editorial board in order provoke a community response. Mission accomplished.  One might have dubbed it the “shot heard round the school system” in less sensitive times.

On Friday, the Jefferson County Public Schools Board (JCPSB) rejected the comment like a Nerlens Noel blocked shot. “We are concerned this reckless language will distract from the real issue of increasing student achievement by starting yet another squabble among adults, about adults.”  Come now.  When nearly one-third of Louisville’s public school children aren’t graduating, and test disparity between black and white students in several schools is between 40-50 percentage points, it’s more than a “squabble among adults.”  It’s an issue about children and more importantly what the adults are doing to help them achieve at high levels. Holliday is giving them until the end of the year to turn things around and is threatening a state takeover of some schools if they don’t.

Some are already saying farewell, including a group of black ministers led by Rev. Jerry Stephenson. “The African-American community is standing with the commissioner demanding that the state and local JCPS school board take immediate action to bring these low performing/failing schools to high quality education for our black and low-income students,” said Stephenson who leads the group Black Alliance for Educational Options. They are calling for charter schools and publicly funded tutoring programs. No wonder, recently released test scores reveal that 58 percent of elementary students, 62 percent of middle school students and 49 percent of high school students scored deficient in reading. Math scores were even lower. A range of 54 to 67 percent of elementary to high school students were deficient. Overall, about 80 percent of Louisville’s schools were categorized as “need improvement.” Ouch.

While it’s unfair to assign blame to teachers and administrators who have dedicated themselves to teaching young people to succeed in life, it’s clear that many of these same people are on a sinking ship that has abandoned the idea of high academic standards and accountability.  According to the revised testing and more demanding system, only 28 of Louisville’s 136 schools tested as proficient or distinguished. This was based on a combination of students’ academic scores, college readiness and graduation rates among other criteria. Even in the schools ranked in the “distinguished” category, the racial disparity in test performance was stark. Holliday called it apartheid. Should significant change come from this, perhaps he’ll be known as the Nelson Mandela of educational reform.  It’s been 23 years since KERA was enacted. Numerous testing schemes and twists and tweaks have filled the interval but education has not improved, even after pumping millions of extra dollars into the schools.

The Districts of Innovation law passed last year loosens up some of the red tape in 10 pilot schools if 70 percent of teachers and the school board agree to the changes. Call it charter school lite.  Yet significant solutions, like full-fledged charter schools have hit a brick wall otherwise known as the Kentucky Education Association (KEA). This is perhaps more a testament to their lobbying influence than it is a criticism that charter schools don’t work.  Forty-two states have charter schools which cut through the red tape, emphasize local control and reward teachers for a job well done. A cookie cutter approach to education they do not take. They are public schools where parents can choose to send their children and if they perform well, they are likely to attract more students. If not, they could be closed, unlike some current schools where children are trapped with nowhere to go.

If "academic genocide" as Holliday suggests is really happening, how about liberating Louisville students not just from failed management, but from an entire system that hasn't served, in particular, minority students very well?  Last fall, Holliday challenged school district leaders to rethink what schools could looks like in light of Districts of Innovation and to “not bother to apply at all if all you want to do is move the chairs on the Titanic.” If Louisville’s educational ship is listing, then all hands must be on deck, obstacles to significant change jettisoned, and personal security sacrificed in order to save any more children from a system that threatens to suck their future into the abyss.