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March 2020

Some final (for now), personal reflections about the Kentucky Board of Education

As an idealist and reformer, I'm never one to give up the fight for a good cause until I feel I've done everything in my power. For the last two months I've devoted a considerable amount of energy to resisting Gov. Andy Beshear's illegal executive order removing me and other members from the Kentucky Board of Education. I've served as spokesperson for the group, responding to lots of media inquiries, and attending numerous meetings with state officials and interested parties trying to explain why this executive order was different than any previous board reorganization, to restore the independence of the KBE, and to reclaim the appointments of ousted board members.

At this point, I think I've exhausted all my reasonable efforts. Our lawsuit, initiated in partnership with the Bluegrass Institute, goes on. And we have called on state lawmakers to provide a statutory remedy to address this issue, hopefully retroactively (not looking likely), but definitely for the future. It is now in the their hands, and the hands of the court, and except for whatever role I need to play in those efforts, I'm ready to turn my attention toward other avenues of education reform and improvement.

As a teacher, school administrator, professor of education leadership, and activist, I have devoted my career to improving schools and education policy. I did that long before I was appointed to KBE in 2016, and I'll continue when my time on KBE is over. I assume that, for now, it is. If the courts or the legislature deem otherwise, I'll happily return and complete my service until my term naturally ends in April 2022, at which time I imagine Gov. Beshear will select someone else to represent the 2nd district. In the meantime, I will focus my energies elsewhere, including my day job training the next generation of public school leaders, which I truly love. I'll still write about state education policy, of course, including the activities of KBE as they seem relevant, but don't expect to have much more to say about the Governor's executive order.

In this post, I want to offer some personal reflections about my time on the board, and what this all means for the state going forward. When I described my plans for this post, one of my fellow KBE members, whose company I will deeply miss, called it my "closure blog." And perhaps it is.

As always, let me be clear that what I write here represents my views alone, and not necessarily those of any other board member, or anyone affiliated with Western Kentucky University.

Board member or translator? An unlikely appointment

Serving on the state board of education was never an aspiration for me. In fact, it had never occurred to me. Even as a professional educator, I did not even know the names of KBE members other than the board chair. Ironically, I regularly discouraged my education administration students from paying too much attention to the state board, as I believed (and still do), that what happens on the local level has far more impact on student learning than state policy.

So I was surprised when representatives of the Bevin administration contacted me to gauge my interest in a board appointment. I had only met the Governor once for a few minutes in 2015 when he was running for U.S. Senator and I went to one of his campaign events out of curiosity. We had never had a personal conversation. But I knew his policy advisors from my long-standing advocacy of school choice, and even though KBE had no control over whether Kentucky accepted charter schools or scholarship tax credits, their function as a regulatory body would be important if such policies were ever implemented. My knowledge of those policies would be valuable, but even more so would be my long career as a teacher, principal, and university professor.

I accepted the appointment, and serving on KBE turned out to be the greatest professional honor of my life.

It was hard work, at least the way I approached it. There was so much to learn, even after a decades' long career in K-12 education. Decisions were complex and navigating the intersection of ideologies, personalities, the competing interests of stakeholder groups, and the ever-present backdrop of partisan politics was all tricky. Great preparation and discernment went into every meeting, every decision.

I found myself often serving as a kind of translator. In my first two years I was among a minority of board members appointed by Gov. Bevin. I spent lots of time explaining to the Beshear-appointed majority and members of the education community why the administration and new KBE members had such a sense of urgency about improving our education system, and how fresh ideas about policy could help us accomplish our commonly-held goals. After the board was made up of members all appointed by Gov. Bevin, I found myself often translating for them on behalf of the education community, explaining how the local nature of education makes it difficult to impose sweeping policies that actually accomplish their intended goals.

What we accomplished, striving for urgency and humility

I began to think about the work of KBE as exploring the creative tension between urgency and humility, pushing the system beyond the status quo while respecting the limits of state policy and exercising great deference for the wisdom and authority of local actors (parents, students, teachers, and community members) to effect the most powerful education improvements.

Understanding that creative tension between urgency and humility, and approaching people with differing points of view with respect and a desire to seek compromise and common ground, was key to several of the most important, nonpartisan accomplishments of KBE/KDE during my tenure, including both with a mixed board under Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, and with a Bevin majority under Commissioner Lewis:

  • When the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, Kentucky had the opportunity to revamp its school accountability system. That work was initiated under previous Commissioner Pruitt, and the foundation for a new system was approved by a state board made up of a majority of members appointed by former Governor Steve Beshear and a minority of members appointed by Governor Bevin. The accountability system was further revised and reached full implementation last year under Commissioner Lewis’ leadership. No accountability system is perfect of course, but I believe what we created through this rich, stakeholder-invested process is the best framework for transparency and school improvement Kentucky has had to date.
  • Updating high school graduation requirements was a key priority for former Commissioner Pruitt. KBE/KDE undertook that work during his tenure and brought it to completion under Dr. Lewis’ leadership, creating a new framework of graduation requirements that simultaneously injected more rigor into the high school diploma while giving schools and students much more flexibility in personalizing pathways for individual needs and interests. 
  • While charter schools have not been implemented in Kentucky due to statutory uncertainty about how funds should flow with students, KBE/KDE nevertheless faced the obligation of developing a regulatory framework for implementing the 2017 charter school law. Again that work was first initiated under Dr. Pruitt’s leadership and initially approved by a board made up of a majority of Governor Beshear appointees, with minor revisions carried out under the leadership of Dr. Lewis and the current board. I believe the result is the most rigorous system of charter school oversight and accountability of any state in the U.S.
  • Senate Bill 1 of 2017 mandated a much-needed review of Kentucky’s academic standards. Again that work was started under Dr. Pruitt’s leadership and came to fruition under Dr. Lewis’ administration of KDE, with new standards now implemented for reading, math, social studies, health and PE, computer science, and career studies. As chairman of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee, I tried to facilitate approval of these standards, which were developed by Kentucky teachers through a rich process of collaboration and stakeholder involvement. I frequently responded to criticisms of the standards or the process both from members of the community and sometimes from members of the board itself, but through the hard work of KDE staff, the standards were unanimously approved by the board and have received positive feedback from teachers. The Kentucky Council for the Social Studies honored me last year with their Meece Award for Leadership in the Social Studies for my involvement, one of the most special recognitions of my career.
  • I want to also point to the greatly renewed emphasis by KBE/KDE on Career and Technical Education. Again, this focus began under Dr. Pruitt but reached a high point under Dr. Lewis’ leadership, with the creation of a General Assembly task force, requested by KBE, to review the needs of CTE and how CTE programming can be improved. Dr. Lewis conducted a statewide tour of state and district career-tech centers and I had the privilege of joining him for many of these visits, along with several other members of the board.
  • Finally, I want to point toward the initial budget request made by KDE/KBE in December, which included a call for full-day kindergarten funding, expanded transportation funding, restored funding for teacher mentoring, professional development, and school improvement. The board recognized that our education goals cannot be accomplished without more resources and prioritized that need in our request to the General Assembly. It is telling that the newly-appointed Beshear members of KBE largely endorsed the same legislative agenda approved by the ousted Bevin appointees.

If Governor Beshear or militants in the education establishment want to call the Bevin appointees to the Kentucky Board of Education "anti-public schools," I simply call bullshit, and point to what we actually did. The truth is we advanced an ambitious, non-partisan agenda that made great strides toward the kind of education system this state truly deserves. Only a small-minded, intellectually dishonest partisan could frame our work as anti-education. We disagreed often and we wrestled with the most pressing policy issues facing the state, but I never doubted my fellow board members' commitment to better public schools. No matter our occasional disagreements, I have come to respect, admire, and love all of them. Some will, I hope, be my life-long friends.


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