Vigilance about keeping church and state separate

I’ve received a number of comments and questions about an evening meeting of an organization called Louisville Area Christian Educator Support (“LACES”) held earlier this week in a JCPS auditorium. It’s clear to me that many Louisvillians are concerned about both sides of our Constitution’s provisions separating church and state: freedom from governmental “establishment” of any preferred religion, as by presenting or allowing preaching or proselytizing in schools; and freedom to “exercise” one’s religion, as by praying in whatever manner dictated by one’s belief.

As a school board member, as a participant in organized religion, and as a lawyer and former teacher of constitutional law, I take seriously the Constitution’s promise of freedom to practice one’s own religion and not to have government force any religion on anyone. This seriousness will inform my evaluation of these issues whenever they arise.

As soon as this controversy surfaced on the web, board members asked for clarification of JCPS policy and whether the event complied with policy. Here’s what we learned:

“JCPS, through the Board’s policy, allows community groups, religious and non-religious, to use district facilities after school hours. LACES completed the appropriate application for Facility Use.

We have received a number of questions and comments from the community regarding media reports about the content of the event. To remind our principals regarding their obligations pursuant to the law, we have distributed . . . guidance to the Achievement Area Superintendents and Principals.

This guidance states:

· Public school employees are required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as public school employees.

· Public schools may teach students about religion in appropriate courses, such as World History and Literature; such studies are academic, not devotional.

· Creationism and Intelligent Design are not a part of the state science curriculum standards and are not taught.

· Students have a right to pray at school individually, or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive, and such prayer is not organized or led by staff.”

My sense is that (1) policy comports with Constitutional requirements, and (2) we may learn more about whether this particular event complied with policy. I doubt all members of the community will be satisfied; after all, Americans have been arguing about separation of church and state almost since our beginning as a nation. But vigilance about keeping church and state separate, and passion about religion, are vital elements of America. So thanks to all who’ve commented and are paying attention!

Students in Priority schools better served by State takeover?

Both Insider Louisville Short of a hurricane … and the Courier-Journal ( recently published articles exploring whether State takeover of JCPS’ “Priority” (i.e. worst-performing) schools would improve results. The New York Times last week explored Tennessee’s takeover of Memphis schools: Crucible of Change in Memphis …  All these are worth reading.

All three articles imply that States bring authority or expertise to school turnaround efforts that local Districts lack. An important question in Jefferson County is what State takeover might add to our mix. Commissioner Holliday’s comments, as reported in the C-J piece, imply that the State would be more effective that the District in dealing with the teachers’ union — a timely issue, since the contract with JCTA is up for renegotiation soon.

I’d welcome input on whether students in the Priority schools would be better served by State takeover. Improving student achievement is the goal; who manages and who gets the credit is a secondary matter. What do you think?

Healthy Schools Summit at WKU

Yesterday I had the honor of giving the keynote address to the Healthy Schools Summit at the (beautiful!) WKU conference center in Bowling Green. Organized by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (, the Kentucky Department of Education and regional public health departments, the Summit focused on how schools affect, and can do more to improve, all aspects of kids’ health. A great group of people attended — principals, teachers (health, PE and many other subjects), nurses, public health advocates and workers, and university folk.

My talk was based on the presentation I made at the Imagine Solutions conference last month, which you can find elsewhere on this Facebook page. Better for me than my talking, though, was my learning: Jacy Wooley and Melissa McDonald of the Alliance, and Jamie Sparks of KDE, helped me understand the many wellness and nutrition programs and resources that have been created over the past few years (including in response to the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” Campaign, state initiatives here and elsewhere, and efforts by national philanthropies and businesses). I’m embarrassed to say that I was surprised by the quality and abundance of good infrastructure and tools.

The challenge for local schools systems appears to be (a) to make student health a priority, and (b) to push this priority into the school day a midst the many other competing demands. I’m so thankful that I got a big dose of learning to help me be constructive in this work.

Share data and transparent, non-defensive analysis

Superintendent Donna Hargens made a new commitment to the community at last week’s school board meeting. It seems to have gone unnoticed in the broader media, but I think it’s important.

In her opening remarks Dr. Hargens announced that henceforth she would report to the board and community, at every board meeting, on a subject directly related to improving student achievement. She then proceeded to give an example by reviewing the metrics she uses to determine whether schools are making progress toward their turnaround goals — data that District leadership receives regularly, between the annual exam scores that drive State assessments of school performance. Examples include attendance and suspension data, results of interim “formative” assessments of student learning, and feedback from Assistant Superintendents on how the “Professional Learning Community” model is being implemented by school.

In my view this is an important step. The District needs to communicate to the community the changes it’s implementing to improve student performance and whether these changes are working. Board meetings provide regular opportunities to share data and transparent, non-defensive analysis. It strikes me as an important step that Dr. Hargens plans to use the “bully pulpit” that these meetings provide to focus on what really matters: How our kids are learning.

Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a growing problem for young Americans — indeed, it’s become an epidemic. Obesity in young people brings horrible chronic illnesses in its wake — Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer — and also reduces educational attainment and career success. I believe we can and will reverse this terrible epidemic, and explained how in a talk at the “Imagine Solutions” conference in Naples, FL, a couple weeks ago.

Here’s the link to my talk:

I welcome your feedback!

Thoughts on Charter Schools

My thoughts on charter schools:

Kentucky’s legislature is debating whether to follow most other states by authorizing charter schools – and more specifically, whether to add charter schools to the list of strategies school districts can adopt to turn around persistently low achieving (PLA) schools.

Several people have asked me for my opinion of the proposed legislation and of charter schools in general. Here’s what I think: I’m not very excited about charter schools, either pro or con, and the reasons are simple. First, my sole objective is to improve student achievement. Second, I don’t view charters as particularly relevant to solving the root cause of JCPS’ lowest achieving students.

Nationally there seem to be two fundamental arguments advanced in favor of bringing charter operators into big urban districts like Louisville. First, charters are innovative; they try new and varied approaches, some of which work. This clearly has appeal, since it’s tough to innovate in a gigantic, highly regulated organization like JCPS. But it’s hard to see why JCPS can’t learn from and adopt successful strategies already demonstrated by the best charter schools elsewhere in America over the past decade. Big organizations, well led, can be highly effective at copying and replicating what works, and under Kentucky’s new promise to waive regulations for “Districts of Innovation” JCPS appears to have that opportunity.

The second argument, put forward by Senator Paul among others, is that charters will transform student achievement by offering choice to parents. This sounds good, and I love choice and competition. If the charter legislation passes, I expect the school board to look carefully at the new tool it provides and see how we could use it constructively to help every child succeed.

But “choice” isn’t a new concept within JCPS. Louisville parents today choose from among schools in their geographic cluster, magnet schools and traditional schools. Within many schools are additional choices among tracks and programs, some competitive and some not.

The current choice system is far from perfect. Many families don’t get their first choice, and about 20% don’t get either first or second choice. Family logistics and the student assignment plan mean that many families must choose based on factors unrelated to the best academic fit for their child. And perhaps most frustrating, communication from the District about choices, application processes and decision criteria is confusing – sometimes almost impenetrable. To note that choice is offered is not to express satisfaction with how school selection works today for most families.

But for the lowest performing schools, the big problem is that they are tasked with educating more than their share of kids whose parents don’t prioritize choices about school. Some parents are overwhelmed by poverty or homelessness; others can’t cope with the complexity of the system and are given the short straw. And some don’t get their choice, and are stuck in these schools. Whatever the cause, our system collects the kids whose families don’t engage successfully with schools, disproportionately, in the lowest performing schools.

And it’s a circular problem: If no adult is focused on school, kids don’t just fail to do their homework; they are absent more. (I’m told that at Valley High, 40% of the students are absent for at least one month of the school year.) Where families are homeless or unstable, kids bounce between schools more often – in some schools more than 1/3 of the student body departs each year for other JCPS schools.

These special challenges are over-represented in our lowest performing schools – precisely because so many active, engaged parents manage to take advantage of the choices JCPS offers to ensure that their kids attend elsewhere, leaving behind the kids without engaged adults.

I cannot see how giving parents the choice of a charter school will help these kids. The new schools would choose among applicants (how is not clear), so the kids who lack a parent or guardian to show up and apply are likely to drift elsewhere in the system.

Another reason I’m not excited about charters is that there’s no example nationally of a high quality charter operator scaling (outside of Katrina-flattened New Orleans) to address more than a fraction of a big urban district’s needs. Whether charter legislation passes or not, we will still educate most Louisville students in our public schools.

I wish I believed that charters would solve our problems; a simple solution would be so, so welcome. But in my view there’s no substitute for JCPS doing the hard work of educating all kids, including the ones whose parents can’t or won’t engage to support them and their schools to live up to high expectations. We have to get more creative in communicating with and engaging parents for whom engaging with school doesn’t come easily. We have to partner better with community organizations that can help kids in deep poverty and isolation. We have to evaluate our big systems – human resources, transportation, food services – and be willing to change to remove barriers to student achievement..

What it boils down to is I see charters as a small piece of a very big puzzle. Until we address the root causes of low student achievement, passage of the charter bill in Frankfort won’t meaningfully change the game for Louisville’s most at-risk students.

The honeymoon for new school board members is over

Well, the honeymoon for new school board members is over.

The events of the past week need to be a wake-up call to JCPS and to the school board. How we as a board manage our business, what we spend our time debating, what questions we ask, and especially what expectations we demonstrate all make a difference.

The District has been reorganized under Superintendent Hargens’ leadership in a concerted effort to improve student achievement; as a board, we must take a page from that book and reorganize our work to show the same urgent commitment to improvement that we’re demanding from JCPS educators.

While my colleagues and I are personally repelled by Commissioner Terry Holliday’s choice of words, it’s time to let go of that and face the bigger issue: What are we doing to turn the tide so all students receive the education they desperately need to be functional adults in an economy that will continue to demand more from them?

Since joining the board I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t know about Dr. Hargens’ reorganization of the District, and about changes that are beginning to take effect. But there’s no question these changes have not yet fixed our weakest schools. We must do far more to explain planned changes to the community and engage parents in their kids’ education, while seeking the help of every Louisvillian to push our students to succeed – and supporting them as that happens.

Our schools are teaching students to approach problem solving with high-level, critical thinking skills. If we embrace those same skill sets we can – and will – effectively address the crisis of persistently low-achieving schools.

I’m pleased that the board is united on the urgency of turning around our weakest schools by energetically implementing Dr. Hargens’ turnaround plan. But we can and must do more to show the community the change that’s underway – and that we’re ready to try new things if this plan doesn’t work. Passively waiting for state data, and then reporting it to Louisville parents and voters, just won’t do.

So – I’m repelled by Dr. Holliday’s word choice, but I welcome his heat. I want adults to model reasonable discourse, which is what we’re trying to teach our kids, but I also know that candor is essential to fixing any problem, and that passion in pursuit of a lofty goal is no vice.

Please let me know your ideas and thoughts on this subject. Post your concerns here or email me at Thank you!

On Public Education

My family’s roots in Louisville run deep: From the California neighborhood where my dad was raised, to Main Street where I was chairman of one of the biggest employers in the city; from the parks where I bike and hike, to the public schools across the city where my children and I were educated.

My love of education was nurtured by my mother, who is a former teacher. And I’ve been fortunate to take my love of education into the classroom as a teacher, too; first in China, and later as a lecturer in law schools and at UofL’s College of Business, and teaching Sunday School at my church. I’ve also been a guest speaker in JCPS schools and served as a volunteer mentor in the Every1Reads program.

The link between the strength of a community’s public schools and its long-term economic success is intrinsic, and Louisville will never have the latter until we commit fully to the former. I’ve spent decades as a civic and business leader working to meet the challenge of guaranteeing equal opportunity for educational excellence for every child. And now I’m ready to do even more.

I want to bring a new kind of leadership to our School Board, one that instills accountability for high student achievement and requires return-on-investment of our scarce resources. Our children deserve the brightest future we can give them. But until we make every school in every neighborhood a great choice, we haven’t met our obligation to them and we’re continuing to risk our economic security.