Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis

Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis

From reading the newspaper, Kentucky parents might conclude that public charter schools are central to everything the Kentucky Department of Education has done over the past two months, and that charter schools are central to everything I, as interim commissioner of education, hope to accomplish for kids. That conclusion would be false.

While I have been and will continue to be an advocate for high quality public charter schools, I have made it clear what my policy priorities will be in this role.

During the June 6 meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education, I outlined my priorities as interim commissioner, telling board members that everything we do at the Department of Education should be aligned to student outcomes. This includes closing achievement gaps, ensuring that our youngest students are acquiring skills in literacy and numeracy, and revising the state’s high school graduation requirements. Other priorities include:

  • Increasing the number of high school students completing career and technical education pathways and earning industry-recognized credentials in high-demand sectors;
  • Increasing the number of high school students successfully completing early postsecondary opportunities, such as dual credit courses and Advanced Placement testing;
  • Increasing flexibility and autonomy for public schools and school districts in exchange for performance accountability; and
  • Expanding the number and type of high-quality public school options available to Kentucky’s students.

The last bullet in my list of priorities tends to get all of the headlines, however, so I will take this opportunity to point out some facts that get forgotten or distorted in the debate against charter schools. Many arguments against public charter schools give no attention to needs of children and desires of parents. For example, a 2013 poll showed that 8 in 10 Kentucky voters supported increasing options available for parents when choosing a public school for their children.

In the state dialogue about charter schools, it is often also forgotten that charter schools are public schools. Kentucky’s law requires that charters use the same academic standards and participate in the same assessment and accountability system as all other Kentucky public schools.

Charters are required to hire teachers certified to teach in Kentucky, just like any other public school. Charters have an added element of performance accountability unlike traditional public schools, meaning if they fail to meet academic performance standards they can be closed. Kentucky’s law has strong quality control provisions that create a high bar of entry for charter applicants and ensure that only charter schools that perform well academically will be permitted to continue to operate.

Additionally, because no student can be assigned to attend a public charter school, charters must offer programs that are attractive to students and parents. Once the Kentucky legislature sets a permanent charter funding mechanism, I believe charter schools will exist primarily in our metropolitan areas. That has been the pattern of charter school growth in other states, and I don’t expect to see anything different in Kentucky.

Next, let me make my position on public charter schools in Kentucky very clear: Traditional public schools have been and will continue to be the primary vehicle for delivering instruction to our students. With that said, Kentucky’s charter school statute gives us the opportunity to provide additional high-quality public school options to students trapped in schools and programs that do not meet their needs.

Kentucky has struggled mightily to provide high-quality learning experiences to children from low-income families, children of color and children with disabilities. I will continue to advocate for the expansion of high-quality options for parents and students, including the growth of a high-quality charter sector to help us better meet the needs of all students. 

Consider this. In Kentucky, 2017 K-PREP test scores show that 72.4 percent of 3rd-grade students who do not receive free/reduced-price meals (an indicator of low-income families), scored proficient/distinguished in reading. Only 47.3 percent of students who do receive free/reduced-price meals scored at the top levels.

The scores in mathematics also are troubling, especially when broken down by race. In 2017, 53.5 percent of white students in 3rd grade scored distinguished/proficient in math, while only 31.2 of African-American students scored at the top levels. These numbers show clearly that tremendous improvement is needed to ensure that our system is, in fact, meeting the needs of all students.

Charter opponents often argue that increased education funding alone would lead to better outcomes for our underserved student populations. To put it bluntly, that argument is wrong. Funding is important, but simply increasing funding to a system that is foundationally inequitable will not eliminate the inequity we currently find in our schools. We also must improve our system. Kentucky’s public education system is in need of significant reform and we must use every tool at our disposal to improve it. That is what it means to truly put our children first.