Innovating to Improve Education and Healthcare


Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the Leadership Louisville Center’s “2014 Best of Leadership Summit.” I spoke in a session called “A New School of Thought,” alongside Cathe Dykstra (CEO of Family Scholar House), Dr. James Calleroz White (Head of Louisville Collegiate School), and Dr. Kevin Cosby (Senior Pastor of St. Stephen Church and President of Simmons College of Kentucky). Each of us spoke, in different ways, to the theme of bringing new approaches to the problems of poverty, unhealth and lack of education that pose deep challenges to Louisville and to our greater American society.

I titled my own talk “It’s Personal:  Innovating to Improve Education and Healthcare,” and intentionally bit off perhaps a bit more than I could chew in the 15 allotted minutes.   My goal was to try to share something sort of shocking that I realized late in 2013, and have gained confidence in since:  the last several quarters have been among the most exciting of my professional career.  This surprises almost everyone who knows that I’ve spent most of this time on the implementation of Obamacare (and specifically health insurance purchasing exchanges) and on the oversight of public education.

Living and breathing the pressures and wrenching shifts buffeting the healthcare and education sectors have led me, somewhat to my own surprise, to great optimism.  I believe that we are on the cusp of exponential, positive change.  My aim during the summit was to give the audience a sense of what’s coming, what it might mean, and what attitude I hope Louisvillians will bring to the dance.

The gist of what’s coming, to both healthcare and education, is information technology — and specifically “big data,” by which I mean the collection and organization of information that gives us knowledge which was previously beyond human grasp.  With that knowledge comes the potential to act to solve problems that were previously beyond our reach.


Here’s a simple big data example from a familiar company with important Louisville presence.  Several years ago UPS combined its massive GPS database with information from vehicle fuel-efficiency sensors. The analysis identified 85 million miles of potential route changes.  By acting on this insight, UPS cut fuel consumption by 8.4 million gallons, saved a bunch of money on gas and labor, and did this all without compromising customer service.

I’m blessed in my work because I get to consider technology and data from board-level and strategic perspectives, where the beauty and potential of change can at least be imagined if not yet seen--sort of like the beauty of Hurricane Katrina can be seen in this picture. But I know that at ground level, chairs and tables, even buses and roofs, are flying and people in the wrong place are getting crushed. As Mike Harreld said in his great opening talk to the Leadership Louisville Summit, today's leaders have to help teams navigate this tumult.

I’m blessed in my work because I get to consider technology and data from board-level and strategic perspectives, where the beauty and potential of change can at least be imagined if not yet seen–sort of like the beauty of a hurricane can be seen in this picture. But I know that at ground level, chairs and tables, even buses and roofs, are flying and people in the wrong place are getting crushed. As Mike Harreld said in his great opening talk to the Leadership Louisville Summit, today’s leaders have to help teams navigate this tumult.

For perspective, it is 93 million miles from the earth to the sun. 85 million miles will take you to the moon 355 times, and get you around the equator 7.65 times with the “remainder.” That’s data in action on a systems scale!

Healthcare and education haven’t yet been upended by IT in the way transportation, media and so many other sectors have, but it’s coming.  The sectors share important similarities that have delayed disruptive technology-driven change:  each is driven by third-party payment structures that separate customer decision from financial impact, and each struggles with complex organizational structures and the absence of agreed upon standards.  But each is under enormous pressure from angry citizens who have lost confidence that expenditures relate to outcomes, and from my perspective it looks like both are finally starting to scramble to catch-up.



The early stages of healthcare reform, driven by the blunderbuss of the Affordable Care Act, have been indisputably chaotic. However, amid all the howling about Obamacare, failed insurance exchanges, KentuckyOne (and nationally, other hospital systems) laying off hundreds of people, and costs continuing to rise like crazy, some powerful positive signs are emerging.  I feel like the little boy in President Reagan’s joke about the muck-filled barn: I know there’s a pony in here somewhere!

The “pony” is that Obamacare, perhaps accidentally, has smashed the business models of insurance companies like Humana and forced them to innovate or die.  This has unleashed a barrage of investment in data, analytics, and new forms of care.  Two examples:  (1) Humana has spent over $3.5 billion in the last several years acquiring new IT, analytics  (including a piece of Google Health’s ecosystem), and clinical competencies – all in addition to filling many of the buildings around downtown Louisville with IT talent from around the world. (2) New companies like BenefitFocus and Castlight have created billions of dollars of capital out of the market’s conviction that healthcare really is changing — capital that can fuel this change.

So what will new healthcare look like?  Some of it will undoubtedly be traditional—brilliant cancer specialists empowered by genomic knowledge to target drugs ever more precisely at not just “cancer,” but “your personally specific cancer.”  But the most inspiring example that I saw in 2013 was not remotely medical in nature.  Instead it put big data to use in social coordination.

Here’s how, in three “easy” steps that could never have occurred without big data:  First, a powerful predictive modeling engine enabled a Medicare Advantage insurance company to identify frail, elderly beneficiaries in Miami at risk for falls.  (As you probably know, falls in the home are one of the most common triggers of older Americans’ final decline that precedes death.)  Second, home visits identified whether an elderly member’s shower was of the “step over the tub” variety.  If so, the third step was a call to a community organization of retired carpenters who volunteer to install safety bars in the showers – sort of a twist on Habitat for Humanity. As a result of these three simple steps, hospital admissions fell measurably, paying for many more home visits and opening the door to all the relentless focus on eliminating falls that a big, powerful organization can bring.

I expect that the data will eventually show longer, healthier lives thanks to the human kindness of installing safety bars — powered by big data.  This is where the magic happens – by taking the data directly to the person who can apply it and create a HUMAN result.

A second example relates to the national disaster that is the obesity epidemic.  You all know the depressing statistics: 36% of American adults are obese (even higher in Kentucky), with the attendant risk factors for heart disease, stroke, type two diabetes, certain types of cancer, and preventable death.  Some 70% of medical expenditures, which totaled more than $2.5 trillion last year, relate to chronic illness, mostly driven by obesity or smoking.

Big data, coupled with mobile communications (aka your smartphone) and behavioral psychology, will (along with education) solve this problem.  We’re in the early days, typified by Humana’s Vitality program, of creating incentives and payment structures to motivate people to eat better and improve their lifestyle.  Since predictable obesity-generated medical costs far exceed the cost of green leafy vegetables, the insurer, employer, or government program that pays your medical bills has a reason to invest in connecting the dots by subsidizing better food, teaching better eating habits, or whatever else it takes.



I have been engaged in education-related work here in Louisville and at the national level for years.  Since joining the school board 15 months ago, one of the most important things I’ve learned is how much data Jefferson County Public Schools actually has about its own activities and effectiveness.

Last fall a report card from the state told us that, for the first time in memory, JCPS students in the aggregate achieved the system’s goal of making meaningful improvement across the board.   This is an encouraging sign that Superintendent Hargens and her team are getting results from JCPS’ strategy. However, just as in the battles against the frailties of aging and the trials of modern food culture, we’ve barely begun.

There are, to be sure, encouraging signs of the transformation at the ground level — examples of data and new tech tools in use that remind me of IT-enabled cancer care.  For instance, all over JCPS teams of teachers are poring over data to diagnose which student missed the point of which lesson, and are targeting interventions to get them back on track.  I’ve also seen demonstrations of high school teachers leading classes of smartphone-wielding students through lessons with constant, personalized feedback on who gets it and who doesn’t, sending out to Khan Academy and other web sites for catch-up.  All this makes my heart beat faster in excitement.

But when I look at data that shows 12% of JCPS students are homeless for some part of each year, that half of our five-year-olds are well behind when they get to kindergarten, and that in our worst middle schools barely 10% of entering sixth graders are proficient in math – AND THAT WE KNOW THE NAMES OF THESE SPECIFIC STUDENTS! —I know that data is not enough.  We need that retired carpenter to put up a hand rail.  We need more than teachers (just as in healthcare we need more than doctors) can provide.

Big data creates a sense of urgency and points out new arenas for innovative leadership to put our new tools to constructive use.  But the data is not the magic; the magic is the ACTION that it makes possible.

In my healthcare world, this means that we need to be ready for healthcare exchanges to work, for most Americans to have access to understandable health insurance, and for the onslaught of the economics of standards and networks and automation that can transform healthcare delivery.  Effective leaders will have to spend money to create health, probably before it’s proven to save money.  I’m proud, in this context, that Humana has adopted an inspiring, even awesome, new enterprise goal:  to improve by 20% the health of the communities the company serves.

In my education world, this means that we must invest in new teaching, recognizing that teachers’ shift from the role of dominant expert to that of caring motivator is a gigantic change.  We’ll need to spend money on training, on support for choosing from the smorgasbord of digital content, and on a system of real feedback that tells teachers how they’re doing.  We’ll have to pay for this investment by eliminating relentlessly the expensive trappings of the old systems.

But we’ll also have to confront the effects of poverty and family breakdown.  In healthcare we pay enough to doctors and hospitals that avoiding their interventions can pay for big data-driven coordination, including social outreach.  In education we don’t yet have a comparable model, but we can predict the cost in welfare, healthcare and prisons — not to mention foregone creativity and productivity — of having kids enter school three years behind.  Big data has given us new knowledge; now we have to act on it.

I left the Leadership Louisville crowd with a call to action:  Louisville must, and can, name and claim this problem.  We can’t afford to ignore the data, to be a city that wastes its human capital on avoidable disease or ignorance.  We can be smart big data users.  And we must do our individual parts, taking the call and saying, like the volunteer carpenter, “Yes, I’ll come over.”

2013: A Year in Review

The new year that starts this week marks the close of my first full calendar year on the Jefferson County Board of Education. As we enter a season of resolution, looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead in 2014, I wanted to recap some of the positive highlights that I experienced as a board member in 2013.

  • At the top of my list has been the pleasure of getting to know, and to work with, so many talented, dedicated people in the JCPS family. From my colleagues on the school board, to the elementary school students to whom I read Dr. Seuss stories, to the extraordinary teachers and principals I’ve encountered in and out of the schools, the people to whom board membership has introduced me made 2013 special.
  • Another highlight was that the work of these fine people showed results. In 2013 JCPS students exceeded the numerical goal set by the state and measured by state-required tests. Perhaps more important, JCPS students continued their multi-year trend of rising within Kentucky’s rankings: in 2011 JCPS scored in the 9th percentile (that is, worse than 91% of Kentucky’s districts), but in 2013 JCPS ranked in the 32nd percentile. I credit this progress to Superintendent Hargens’ focused leadership in implementing JCPS’ strategy for improving student achievement, and to the intensive efforts of educators across the system to reach and engage our students. JCPS has a long way to go to reach its goal of being the best urban system in the United States, and bottom third in Kentucky is not satisfactory — but 2013 performance suggests that momentum is building.
  • Also noteworthy was that JCPS made this progress while being among the first big districts in the nation to implement the new Common Core State Standards, which require more learning from students at every level. I credit the broad Louisville community for understanding that our students must learn more in order to become successful adults in our globally competitive world, and I credit their teachers for changing and learning to deliver on these higher standards.
  • At a more practical level, JCPS and its teachers’ union negotiated an affordable, effective labor contract, and the board used its taxing authority to pay for it. As I wrote in August (here), teachers are by far our most important driver of both student achievement and system cost. JCPS and the JCTA had to come to an agreement on terms that would attract and support good teachers, while remaining realistic and responsible in light of the funding challenges and broader infrastructural demands of a public school system. I believe the new contract effectively balanced these twin imperatives.
  • Finally, as a person with a visual memory and one who loves music, my mental review of 2013 brought forth some special, somewhat random vignettes:
    • The powerful student chorus in JCPS’ Youth Performing Arts School’s (YPAS) rendition of Urinetown, a socially conscious musical satire that both made me think and showcased the tremendous talent being cultivated at the school.
    • The laughter and friendly get-to-know-you conversation at an early pot-luck supper with board members and spouses.
    • A surprise visit from Curtis Aikens, a nationally-known chef and literacy advocate, in response to an invitation from English language-learners at Atherton High School who were inspired by his struggle with illiteracy and its similarities to their own work to master English as a second language.
    • Fern Creek students’ presentation to the board regarding their inspiring visit to the Navajo nation to learn about the sacred values attributed to food in that culture – and the subsequent exchange that resulted when Navajo students and leaders came to visit Louisville.
    • A performance that showcased the rich cultures of Shawnee High School’s Newcomer Academy, during which students sang and danced in proud celebration of their varied heritages.
    • Seneca High School’s graduation ceremony, when Principal Michelle Dillard moved from thoughtful speech to glorious song that nearly raised the roof of Freedom Hall — inspiring me with an example of an educator doing whatever it takes to connect with our students.

JCPS and its board face challenges in 2014. Uppermost on the community’s mind, as Kentucky’s legislature considers whether to restore some of the funds cut from education during the recession, should probably be how we will fund the continuing improvement of our schools. This conversation continues to evolve at the state level (see, for example, here), and Louisville must do all it can to ensure that we are not short-changed in the distribution of state funds.

Also a priority for me is for the board to focus its own efforts in support of the big changes we are demanding from teachers and other personnel across the system. In addition to mastering the new Common Core, staying after school to use extended day funding allocated by the board to help struggling learners catch up, and all the “normal” challenges of delivering great instruction, teachers and principals will be working within a newly adopted professional assessment and development system. The board is pressing for big change and progress within our schools, and it seems only right that the board adapt its own processes to sharpen its own, and Louisville’s, understanding of what’s happening in JCPS.

Change is hard for all organizations, and I expect lots of dialogue as the board finds its way in this new, ubiquitously connected and constantly communicating era. But I am pleased to open the new year with a sense of optimism, driven by the learning and accomplishments of 2013.

JCPS’ Envision Equity Summit

JCPS hosted an “Equity Summit” yesterday morning at which it released its first Envision Equity Scorecard.  The Scorecard “scrutinizes system inequities and identifies how demographic data correlate to student outcomes and school culture.”  (The full Scorecard report is here, and a summary is here.  JCPS welcomes feedback here.)

The data in the Scorecard is not surprising, but it is still shocking.  The differences between JCPS schools in levels of poverty, preparedness, discipline and school culture are extreme but not surprising, since these same differences characterize our neighborhoods and our culture at large.

Yet the most important part of the report, to me, is not the picture of inequity that it so effectively paints.  Rather, it is that the report starts to answer the right question, namely:  Given all these sad and unequal statistics, WHAT WORKS?  What steps have schools taken that enable poor children from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn what they need to be ready to excel at life?

Superintendent Hargens, Assistant Superintendent John Marshall, and the many contributors to the report begin to address this question, and that is where the report shines.  It calls out schools that disproportionately serve students in extreme poverty, yet produce disproportionately fine results.  These schools include:

  • Young Elementary, where 94% of the students are on Free & Reduced Lunch, but recent test results surpassed the school’s annual objective by more than 10 points;
  • Fern Creek High School, a priority (fka persistently low achieving) school where the percentage of students who test “College & Career Ready” has grown from 19% in 2010 to 55% in 2013 – and the improvement was spread across all demographic groups;
  • The Phoenix School of Discovery, where improvements in classroom instruction and teacher training are credited with an 80% reduction from 2012 – 13 school years in suspensions, with equivalent reductions for white and black students; and
  • Breckenridge-Franklin Elementary school, an extreme poverty school that produced one of the largest gains in student reading proficiency in JCPS between 2012 and 2013, and made gains with all student groups.

National reform groups often point to the impressive gains made by innovative school operators like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP, as evidence that “we know what works” in urban education if only we have the will to act on this knowledge.  The powerful examples of school success within JCPS suggest that we can find innovation closer to home.

Wherever we uncover effective innovation, however, the challenge remains the same:  We must have the will to act on the discovery and spread the learning.  Dr. Hargens and Dr. Marshall shared both the challenge and some of the solutions with our community yesterday morning.  I call on all who read this to support, help with and push for effective action.

Read this book! From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007, by Tracy E. K’Meyer

I ran for election to Louisville’s school board because I believed our public schools needed to improve, and were more likely to do so with the support and engagement of business leaders.  “Increase student achievement” was my focus.  The first thing I learned when I started to campaign last fall, however, was that most adult voters wanted to talk about busing. Opinions varied widely – as did cited facts and understandings of how JCPS’ student assignment plan works and how our public schools came to offer this system to Louisville citizens.

Tracy E. K’Meyer, Chair of the History Department at University of Louisville, has just published a fine book that sets Louisville’s experience and programs in historical context.  She does so in concise, readable prose and well chosen quotations from community participants in the events she describes.

The result is a story that, although it played out mostly during my lifetime, touched me as fresh, alternatively painful and inspiring, and above all human.  K’Meyer’s telling of Louisville’s generally calm reaction to Brown v. Board of Education was largely new to me, while the account of the protest and division unleashed by the 1975 busing order added important nuances to my understanding, including a range of perspectives from both pro- and anti-busing advocates, parents and students.

Especially valuable was the account of how Louisville moved since 1975 from a harum-scarum court-mandated busing plan (did you know the court’s August 1975 busing order allowed only one month for JCPS and school families to prepare?) through several iterations to the current “choice-within-clusters + magnets” system.  At each stage Louisvillians argued for and against desegregation and busing, neighborhood schools, and different visions of community.

Louisville’s parents, educators and voters are fortunate that Dr. K’Meyer chose to focus her talents on our community’s history and gave us this important book to shed light on issues that continue to concern decision makers and citizens alike.  If school board members could assign homework, this would be on my list!


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

Taxes and School Funding: What’s Really Going On

Note:  This comment was first published in Business First of Louisville on August 30, 2013.

When the Jefferson County Board of Education voted on August 12 to increase local property taxes by 1.4% to fund operation of our public schools, we asked JCPS to work with less than its requested 3.1% increase. Mine was one of four votes against the Superintendent’s initial request, but I then proposed and became the swing vote in favor of the lesser increase. I know that raising taxes is rarely popular, so I think it’s important to explain my rationale.

First, I sought election to the school board in 2012 because I believe excellent public education is the key to Louisville’s civic and economic future. I did not join the board to oversee stagnation or decline of JCPS, but because I know JCPS can and must improve.

Second, I share with all my colleagues on the board the belief that Superintendent Hargens has set a strategy that can dramatically improve JCPS’ performance, and is the right person to lead this change. We all expect great results from this strategy, and believe JCPS can become the best urban public school district in the nation.

But I’m also a realist when it comes to finance, where I’ve spent much of my career. I know that local spending on schools cannot, over time, grow faster than the value the schools create for their community. If former students earn low incomes, have high rates of poverty and incarceration, and suffer from chronic, avoidable illness, Louisville will eventually be too poor to pay for good schools. On the other hand, if we graduate students who qualify for or create high-paying jobs, we will prosper and can invest more in schools and other parts of the community we love. But at any stage, school spending cannot outstrip the capacity of its funding base.

“Hard realities” of education finance

In preparing to vote on the local tax rate, these beliefs ran into some hard realities of education finance – and I’ve learned a lot. Realities include millions in recent state and federal cuts to JCPS funding, and the structure of Kentucky education finance, which depends in large part on redistributing taxes from wealthy counties like Jefferson and Fayette to our smaller neighbors. (State and federal funding has provided about one-third of recent JCPS budgets, versus up to 80% for smaller counties.) While shifts in outside funding are beyond Louisville’s control, they influence the funding we must raise locally.

Another challenge is that school finances are driven by commitments made in the past – some of which have created an unsustainable expense structure. Two examples of such commitments are:

  •  Public employee retirement benefits are mandated by the state – but our legislature has failed to collect enough taxes to fund these benefits, resulting in $200 million – $1.5 billion in JCPS unfunded liabilities. These shocking numbers appear nowhere in JCPS’ financial reports (although changed audit rules mean they soon will) and Louisville taxpayers will likely be “on the hook” for this in a matter of a few years.
  • From FY 2007 – FY 2012 the school board voted pay increases averaging nearly 4% annually (including both across-the-board and step increases), well above the rate of inflation. The salary structure, embedded in collective bargaining agreements, is high compared to both Kentucky and other large urban districts. Salaries represent 70% of JCPS’ budget.

These realities faced the new board which formed in January 2013, when three newly elected members joined four already serving members to govern the District: state and federal cuts, an existing cost structure, high and poorly understood future liabilities, and public demand for improvement in student achievement.

Progress so far

JCPS has taken important steps to influence both costs and revenue within these realities.

  1. An affordable, effective labor contract

Teachers are the most important driver of both quality and cost – and this is as it should be.  Nothing matters more to a child’s educational achievement than a skilled, caring teacher, and teachers are the biggest single cost in JCPS’ budget. To succeed, JCPS must offer compensation that attracts and retains good teachers, as well as work environments that support them professionally.

This summer, for the first time in eight years, JCPS and the JCTA negotiated and signed a new contract. Although both sides bargained hard (stimulated by pressure from the state’s Commissioner of Education), they shared the goal of modernizing how teachers work within JCPS and everyone walked away with an agreement they can be proud of. The new contract removed archaic work rules, created flexibility for longer school days for kids who need more learning time, and generally took away from JCPS leadership the excuse of “bad labor contract” as a justification for poor school performance.

This new contract increased pay by less than 1.5%, below the 1.7% cost of living adjustment for Social Security in 2013 and far below the 4% average JCPS had dispensed in recent years.

2. New roads to efficiency

Discipline around salaries is essential to keep JCPS responsive to taxpayers, but we must also reduce spending outside of the classroom. Through hiring freezes and the elimination of positions, Superintendent Hargens has reduced central office overhead by some $4 million in each of her two years. And several months ago the board invited the state auditor to review JCPS from top to bottom to help us find areas where we can spend more wisely, and more efficiently align organization with strategy. Having participated as big healthcare organizations redirect hundreds of millions of dollars from administrative overhead to clinical care under pressure from “Obamacare,” I’m confident JCPS can find savings in restructuring.

3. Increased enrollment and market share

JCPS receives state funds based on enrollment. The formula is complex, but funding increases as more students attend. Since 2008, enrollment has grown from under 98,000 to 101,300, with additional growth to 103,000 expected over the next few years – helping offset some of the cuts to other state funding streams and reducing pressure on local property taxes. This growth no doubt reflects the fact that all schools have struggled to control costs: From 2007-2012, Louisville private and parochial school tuition grew faster (4.3% annually) than either JCPS total expenditures (3.8%) or increases in local property tax rate (1.9%), challenging families across the economic strata.

In sum, JCPS has taken steps to control what it can and move its cost structure toward better alignment with taxpayers. We need to push the Jefferson County delegation in Frankfort to prevent legislators from draining Louisville’s coffers through state cuts that force us to fund rural areas.  And we continue to face a big challenge in the retirement benefits that state legislators have promised but failed to fund. If our legislators keep dodging responsibility and push their liability onto JCPS, Louisville may be in for a rude awakening. I do not yet fully understand this issue or how it might be solved, but see it coming and want to sound the alarm.

How this affects our taxes

So: Why did I vote to increase taxes at all? The answer is that the board had already committed to the 1.5% compensation increase, and it would have been irresponsible (i.e. like legislators in Frankfort or Washington) to make a promise but refuse to pay for it. The new union agreement is a good bargain for students and teachers alike.

Why not increase taxes at the 3.1% rate recommended by the Superintendent? Salaries have risen faster in recent years than the growth rate of Louisville’s economy, than private sector wage increases (if indeed there have been any in some years), or other benchmarks. This cannot continue. Therefore, I thought it important that other cost increases come out of reserve funds rather than be made part of the “permanent” budget through tax funding.

Will we raise taxes in the future? Probably. Quality costs money, and I see no way to cut our way to a great public school system. But the elephant in the room is the issue of unfunded retirement liabilities, whose resolution will likely come, at least in part, from taxes. So, the board will continue to ask JCPS to pursue more operational efficiencies, and must push for creative, longer-term restructuring to remove costs unrelated to student achievement.

At the end of this long and perhaps boring review of school finances, I ask voters to remember one thing: The United States led the world in creating universal, publicly paid education at a time when our nation was far poorer than today. We can afford modern greatness. JCPS can and must deliver it.

More on Common Core Standards debate

More on Common Core Standards debate: In June the NYT published an incoherent critique of the standards by two New York City professors, here: “Who’s Minding the Schools?“ . Mary Gwen and I sent the following letter to the NYT Editor on June 11, 2013, which the Times chose not to publish. Viva social media! Here’s our text:

Re: “Who’s Minding the Schools,” June 9, 2013

Professors Hacker and Dreifus offer a meandering and inaccurate whine about Common Core standards.

As members of the boards of education in Kentucky and Louisville, respectively, we have been closely involved in our state’s decision to be the first to adopt, implement and test to these standards. From this perspective the assertion that Common Core was adopted with “hardly any public discussion” is simply ludicrous. 45 states, through their constitutional processes, worked for years to create, review and adopt the standards. That word might not have filtered through to Political Science departments in New York City does not invalidate this effective work; the United States has a federal system, and this is what state-level action looks like.

If there is a substantive point in the professors’ critique, it is that the standards are too high and will lead to disappointment. Kentucky’s test results, in which the percentage scoring at a proficient level did indeed drop substantially compared to the prior, lower standard, are pointed to in support of this fear. However, parents and voters in our state have so far embraced the tougher measure. We see this as confirmation that parents want their students to learn at a high level, not to receive high scores that mean nothing.

Mary Gwen Wheeler
David A. Jones, Jr.
Louisville, KY

Big Brothers Big Sisters Celebration

Here’s the text from which I spoke to Big Brothers Big Sisters celebration last night. (Loosely — the paper stayed in my pocket.)

It’s an honor to be with you today. I want to start by applauding the graduates. What you’ve done is awesome, and you make all those who love you proud – especially the Big Brothers and Big Sisters here today who’ve stood by you and mentored you along the way. To these fabulous people I want to say thank you for sharing what is most precious: our time.

To honor your graduation I want to make three points. They don’t form a beautiful commencement speech, but they suggest the three things I’ve learned that are most important to me.

  1. We live in a time of miracle and wonder – despite the constant drumbeat of negativity about how tough things are today. For years you’ve heard that the economy is tough, it’s hard to find jobs, the housing market has collapsed, terrorism threatens our way of life – on and on. Of course there are problems – but this emphasis is wrong! As singer Paul Simon said, we live in a time of miracle and wonder.

    a. Technology is the easiest place to start. Those of you who own a smart phone carry the “sum of all knowledge” with you everywhere you go, and can talk to anyone on the planet at zero incremental cost. This is ASTONISHING in the history of the world.

    b. Economics is trickier, because it looks different depending on your age. The housing bust was terrible for older people – but good for young people wanting to buy their first house! The economy is terrible for old people whose skills are atrophied – but good for young, educated people, which is what you’re becoming.

    c. National spirit is trickiest of all, but to me it’s obvious that America is getting better. We are making real progress on our oldest, hardest problem: our “original sin” of racism. Barack Obama may or may not be a successful president; history will judge. But he most certainly is a black man who earned his place as the most powerful person in the world and wields it credibly. Fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. told us of his dream, President Obama is judged by the content of his character. This change has opened doors for all of us. As an example, this improvement in America made it possible for me to start attending St Stephen church, liberated to join one of America’s great traditions – African-American religious celebration – by Obama’s example.

    We live in a time of miracle and wonder. DO NOT LET THE CULTURE OF NEGATIVITY AND WHINING PULL YOU DOWN!

  2. Perseverance is the foundation of hope. You graduates have earned your degrees. It wasn’t easy; parts of your journey have been struggle, even suffering.

    This is not new. Every great religion teaches that suffering is an essential step to fulfillment. My favorite statement of this theme is in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he urges his readers (in verses 3-5) to celebrate even the painful parts of their journeys : “We [should] rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope – and hope does not disappoint.”

    I urge you graduates to take hope from your achievement, and to build on the confidence that you can hang in there, LEARN, and achieve in the future. You’ve proven that you can persevere. Your lives will present more tests that require suffering and perseverance in the future. The self-knowledge that you can put up with pain and doubts along the way will help you in the hard times that, whatever you do and certainly if you continue to aim high and achieve, will lie ahead. BE FILLED WITH HOPE!

  3. Pay it forward. I’ve touched on technology and economics, age, race and religion. I might as well close by quoting Benjamin Franklin, as translated in a commencement speech nearly 40 years ago by a great football coach, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes. Hayes told his graduates and their parents and supporters that Ben Franklin invented the term “Pay it forward.” The basic idea is that all of us receive help from people that we can never pay back. Some receive food or shelter from strangers; some have a special teacher or coach who believes in them and shows them they’re special. You have received mentor-ship from a Big Brother or Big Sister. By the time you’ve finished your education and settled into your career, you probably won’t be able to pay back the people here who have helped you on your way. You may live elsewhere, they may have moved on, and some of the older folk who’ve helped you will, sadly, have passed on.

    I’ve been blessed with many gifts that I can’t pay back. When I was teaching in China, two old teachers who’d been political prisoners for decades smiled and hugged me (in the formal Chinese way, by patting my shoulder) every time they saw me, suggesting my very presence brought them joy because of the better world it represented. I had no idea I mattered. And I received a similar gift from my students, who hung on my every word just because I was speaking English – the only thing I really knew. These people taught me that my effort and care and energy mattered, and that they would learn from me and change their world if I would just do my best.

    I can’t pay back these far away friends from long ago, any more than you can pay back the Big Brothers and Big Sisters here in the room and the others who’ve believed in you. So as Ben Franklin (sort of) said, we must pay it forward by passing on good to folks we don’t yet know. I hope that my service on the school board will let me pay forward the debt I owe to my Chinese colleagues and students, as well as to the teachers and others who cared about me.

    I encourage each of you to pay forward the gift you’ve received from your Big Brother or Big Sister in the future by helping a lonely or aggressive kid who needs a caring adult, or in some new way that you invent out of your own unique, creative, changing-the-world self.

Hawthorne Elementary’s dual language curriculum

On Thursday I visited Hawthorne Elementary at the invitation of Principal Jessica Rosenthal. Hawthorne is unique within JCPS in offering a dual language curriculum in which students learn all subjects in both English and Spanish, spending about half the day in each language in each classroom.

As a foreign language learner and former teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I was THRILLED by what I saw.

Most important, at Hawthorne I saw, for the first time ever within JCPS, students speaking FLUENTLY in a SECOND LANGUAGE that they had LEARNED WITHIN JCPS. Elementary school students from all over Louisville were happily and productively reading, writing, speaking and doing math in both English and Spanish.

I’ve been frustrated for years, as both parent and education activist, by the low expectations and low attainment that JCPS has brought to foreign language instruction. Nowhere else in the system have I ever encountered even a vague notion that non-ESL students might become fluent in a language other than English.

Yet I’ve seen this happen everywhere else I’ve ever been: My own students in China, the multilingual kids of my friends in Europe and Asia, and the many foreign business leaders, government officials, and workers I’ve dealt with over my career. So I was THRILLED to see Hawthorne delivering this global standard of excellence to some of Louisville’s children.

My morning at Hawthorne was overwhelmingly positive, and it’s tempting to stop here. However, continuous improvement requires honest recognition of areas that need work — so I’ll mention several observations that did not thrill me.

First, I was surprised to learn that JCPS personnel policies, as embodied in the contract with JCTA, place teachers in Hawthorne who don’t speak Spanish. Seniority rights allow teachers to transfer to Hawthorne even if they are unable to participate in the school’s unique program. This looks like a good example of the sort of old-fashioned rigidity that needs to be updated to help teachers and students succeed in today’s flexible, globalizing environment.

Student assignment was another surprise. Apparently some students are placed in Hawthorne who haven’t chosen Spanish immersion and have no Spanish, sometimes mid-year in the older grades. Dropping kids into classes where they don’t speak the language replicates the experience of kids who come to the U.S. as refugees from other countries. I expect that many of the Louisville kids who experience this will be as successful as many of our inspiring refugees, thanks to their teachers’ efforts and their own resiliency. But replicating the refugee experience does not look like good policy.

But to finish on a positive note: I loved my visit to Hawthorne, and believe I saw an innovative program, creative and flexible teachers, a happy and nurturing environment, and a school doing work of which all Louisvillians can be proud. And I know I heard the sound of genuine learning, in the natural and effortless switching of kids between two languages that will enrich the rest of their lives.