WATERS: Hopeful rhetoric adorns wall of school-choice obstructionism

Posted by on March 29, 2015
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Jim Waters head

House Education Committee Chairman Derrick Graham’s recent op-ed reveals his clear understanding of Kentucky’s education deficiencies.

Graham, D-Frankfort, is well aware of the “persistent disparities in performance between groups of students, especially those defined as minorities, disabled or low-income.”

He eloquently addresses how “students caught in the achievement gap are disproportionately from African-American, Latino and low-income homes,” and how “these discrepancies stunt not only the educational attainment of these students, but their future economic opportunities as well.”

Graham recognizes that “clearly, far too many schools are falling short.”

Why, then, does he employ more stall tactics than a star defense lawyer when it comes to allowing Kentucky parents to have viable alternatives, including public charter schools, for educating their children – especially when a growing body of evidence indicates that such parental-controlled choices help address those very issues he stews about?

While the state Senate recently passed solid legislation to bring public charter schools to Kentucky, Graham – as he often does – used his substantial power as committee chairman to kill the thoughtful, effective and restrained approach.

The Senate-approved policy creates a pilot program allowing five charter schools in Kentucky’s two largest and most-urban school districts – similar to densely populated, low-income communities nationwide where charters more often than not have an impressive track record of high test scores, graduation rates and college attendance and low failure and dropout numbers.

Graham offered legislation purporting to close the achievement gap and turn around failing schools.

While these bills may reinforce Graham’s any-option-but-charter-schools stance with the state teachers’ union – where he no doubt would like to land a cushy job after his legislative tenure – they offer little in the way of actual education improvement for Kentucky’s neediest students.

Accomplishing that requires policies – including parental school-choice options – that would put him at odds with the union bosses.

Graham’s turnaround bill would have allowed for an “external management organization” to come in and advise a failing school’s existing leadership – but only after that school failed four years in a row.

So if Johnny enters a school that fails during his first-grade year, he’s finished the fourth grade before this dull accountability tool can even be picked up. And if, by chance, the school happens to barely pass during Johnny’s fourth-grade year – even after three consecutive years of failure – then it gets to start over with a new “shot clock.”

Two other significant developments regarding charter schools occurred on the day Graham’s op-ed was published by the Lexington Herald-Leader:

  • Alabama became the 43rd state to pass charter-school legislation, leaving Kentucky among the seven states in the nation without a parental school-choice policy.
  • Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released the results of one of its most comprehensive research projects ever, comparing charters with traditional schools in urban areas in 22 different states.

“This research shows that many urban charter schools are providing superior academic learning for their students,” CREDO director Margaret Raymond said.

Do parents not deserve such options, especially considering the fact that the math proficiency-rate gap among Kentucky’s middle-school students has more than doubled since the Kentucky Education Reform Act was implemented – from 9 points in 1990 to 22 points in 2013?

Among Graham’s flowery rhetoric was his acknowledgement that Kentucky legislators have “a moral obligation and legal responsibility” to ensure such gaps are closed.

So if politicians like Graham and the handful of his party’s fellow charter-school obstructionists in the House fail to close the gaps by blocking school-choice policies that have proven effective elsewhere, does that make such obstruction immoral and even illegal?

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

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Jim Waters

Jim Waters

President at Bluegrass Institute
Jim Waters is President of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s first and only free market think tank. Jim uses his significant media experience as a reporter, editor and broadcaster at newspapers and radio stations in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio to grow the institute’s influence in Frankfort and its impact statewide. Jim is often quoted in the state’s major media sources on public policy issues and writes the Bluegrass Beacon, a weekly newspaper column that appears in publications statewide.

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