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Jim Waters: Legislation brings needed balance to governing of Kentucky schools

The state Senate should be lauded for making reforms to Kentucky’s education system – specifically the way public schools are governed – a top legislative priority during this year’s General Assembly session.

Senate Bill 1 builds on past improvements to bring even more sense and saneness to the relationship between School Based Decision-Making (SBDM) councils and those held accountable for districts, primarily superintendents and the locally elected boards who hire them.

Currently, school boards are the only ones accountable to taxpayers for their districts, but only SBDM councils have the power that matters when it comes to who gets hired, what they teach and how they spend the dollars to get the job done in their individual schools.

Parents, meanwhile, can get left out in the cold since current law requires the majority of council members to be school personnel, including the principals who chair the bodies.

The current SBDM model of school governance – a most bizarre and controversial creation of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990 – not only absolutely prohibits parents from having an equal number of seats on councils but also fails to provide a process by which they can appeal decisions more in the interests of teachers than students.

Opponents of school choice in general and SBDM reforms in particular often feign concern about a lack of parental involvement in our education system while supporting policies that discourage increased engagement.

Claiming parents need to be more involved but denying them alternatives if their children are trapped in failing schools doesn’t indicate a real desire for more parental involvement.

Neither does denying parents at least an equal voice to school staff on SBDM councils.

Parental lack of enthusiasm for this policy is noticed both anecdotally – there have been numerous complaints about schools having difficulty finding parents to serve on SBDM councils – and empirically in extremely low turnouts for the elections which decide councils’ parental representatives.

Kentucky Department of Education data indicate that votes cast for recent SBDM elections numbered less than 10% of school enrollment in nearly three-fourths of the 1,141 public schools reporting voting data and less than 1% in 186 of those schools.

Truth be told, some of the crankiest voices opposing SBDM reforms seem to despise parental involvement.

Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Linda Blackford smears parents engaged in reforming the SBDM system as “the pitchfork crowd” and as “angry, deluded citizens [who] are suddenly flooding school board meetings to squawk about critical race theory and that their children might learn about Martin Luther King, Jr.”

That’s a curious charge considering Kentucky’s new social studies standards don’t even mention King or many of the other great civil rights leaders.

It’s the state’s curriculum standards, not “squawking” parents, which increase the odds that our students won’t know about him or his leadership in helping our nation make great strides in dealing with racial equality – developments Blackford and her teachers’ union comrades rarely, if ever, mention.

As the House now considers SB 1, here are some relevant questions for representatives to ponder:

Has Kentucky’s SBDM policy – a model no other state will touch – contributed to KERA’s vision of dramatically improving Kentucky’s education system?

If SBDM policy is such an asset, why do two out of three fourth grade Kentucky public school students, including 86% of Black children, fail to read proficiently?

If policies aren’t producing demonstrably better education outcomes, why does our state continue to force them upon the citizenry?

If there are different policies which have proven to help especially at-risk students in other states – like offering parents the opportunity to engage in a way that really matters, including choosing where and how their children are educated – why would we prefer a failed policy like SBDM, which no other states subscribes to, over a successful one like school choice, which most other states offer?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.

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