Confusing Careful Stewardship with Cowing to Intimidation

On September 9, an editorial in The Courier-Journal sought to compare votes for property tax increases by the Oldham and Jefferson County Boards of Education. The editors’ assertion that JCBE was “intimidated by an anti-tax backlash” into raising taxes by too little is odd for two reasons.

First, the actions of the Oldham County board that earned praise from the editorial writers (annual tax increases of 0%, 0%, 0% and 6.3% over the past four years) don’t stand out for the constancy of their tie to education needs.

Second, C-J editors know that reality is more complicated, having considered and declined to publish my explanation of the JCBE vote because it was too long. I suppose dumbing things down to the claim that “a noisy, angry band of tax opponents” drove the vote saved on printing costs, and I’m sympathetic to the travails of media businesses struggling with the relentless competitive pressures they face. But ouch for our civic dialogue.

Thankfully, other media engaged with the complexity of the issue (Business First, WFPL and WDRB) and aired my view that improving local public schools (to me our most important civic task) will take both money and discipline — not just “pedal to the metal” funding, but thoughtful structuring and spending.

A sobering reminder of the costs of undisciplined spending and disregard for student achievement appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. In “Philadelphia Schools Reopen in Crisis” reporters describe a district that has hemorrhaged students (enrollment down 23% in a decade) while adults bickered over pay, and failed to align costs and funding streams.

JCPS is nothing like Philadelphia: Our enrollment is growing, and the school board and teacher’s union recently signed an innovative contract that modernized work rules and enabled flexible spending on longer school days for struggling students. And I’m optimistic that, when results of state testing are released later this month, Louisville will see early signs that the turnaround plan led by Superintendent Hargens and her team is working.

Quality education costs money, and achievement of JCPS’ goal of becoming the best urban district in the United States is a vital investment for Louisville. But schools need to earn this investment through clear communication, careful stewardship and tenacious, innovative commitment to improved student outcomes.

Priority Schools: Correspondence between Commissioner & Superintendent

In the linked correspondence, JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens describes steps the District has made to improve student learning in its “Priority Schools” (formerly known as “Persistently Low Achieving Schools”).  In his response, Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday describes as “commendable” the steps JCPS has taken to improve teaching in the Priority Schools, and notes with approval steps to enhance leadership training and extend the learning day for struggling students throughout the District.

These letters provide a clear roadmap to the Superintendent’s strategy and plan for turning around JCPS’ most struggling schools, and I recommend them highly to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the background to state test results that, when JCPS receives them later this month, will shine new light on how the turnaround effort is progressing.

Here’s the link to the report:  OEA REPORT NO. 378