JCPS teachers split on bill changing school standards, control

JCPS teachers split on bill changing school standards, control

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Kentucky passed landmark, court-ordered reform a quarter-century ago, aimed at improving cash and learning poor school districts by holding teachers and administrators accountable for children's performance.

This year, Kentucky Republicans have made Senate Bill #1 job one.

"We're proud of what our teachers do," Senate Education Committee Chair Bill Wilson (R- Bowling Green) told colleagues shortly before his bill passed mostly along party lines, 25-12. "But it's time to let 'em teach."

"We like the fact that it shifts a lot of decision-making back to the local level," said Brent McKim, President of the Jefferson County Teachers' Association, the Commonwealth's largest teachers' union. "We know the kids and we know the situations in the schools."

Eight-and-one-half years ago, then-Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sheldon Berman bemoaned the district's performance in meeting some federal standards tied to No Child Left Behind.

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"As the parent of a special needs child, I doubt he will ever reach standards of proficiency," Berman told reporters.

Sixty-two Jefferson County Public Schools offer courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) to about 7,000 children and teenagers. Senate Democrats suggest Bill #1 risks leaving special needs and ESL students behind by no longer factoring their scores into a school or district's overall performance grade. Rather, their scores would be compared only to scores of ESL and special needs students statewide.

"We have to have high expectations for all of our students," McKim said. "But the current approach of expecting them to be up to speed and ready to take the state exams in one year is probably not realistic."

McKim reserves great concern for the new 10-member panel that Bill #1 would create to review coursework and performance standards every six years. 

"It could lead to the state education commissioner being the only member representing educators," he said.

The Senate President would appoint three Senators to serve, the House Speaker three Representatives. Bill #1 does not require the Governor's three appointees to be educators.

"It could lead to - and probably will lead to politicians controlling the content of what our students learn," Sen. Reginald Thomas (D-Lexington) said before last Wednesday's vote.

Bill #1 would allow high school students to substitute courses in a foreign language or computers science to fulfill credits in Arts & Humanities required for graduation. Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson) maintains it puts music and art programs further at risk.

"I remember a lot more from band than I do calculus," she said. "The arts are the lifeblood of many students. The arts are the reason many students stay in school."

"I understand that concern," McKim said. "But it also could prompt more students to study a foreign language, or more to take an extra year of it."

Many JCTA members favor Bill #1's mandate for districts to establish their own standards for evaluating teachers and their own programs for teachers' professional development.

"We are failing our students in so many aspects," said Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Campbellsville University. "They're having to teach to a test, and the students are not being taught the way they should in the classroom."

But Sen. Johnny Ray Turner (D-Prestonsburg) questions whether once-troubled schools and districts might roll back progress. Bill #1 would allow scores to fall for three years before a district would have to declare it a priority for remedy. Kentucky couldn't intervene unless the local remedy failed to produce results for another four years.

"In 2005, Floyd County Schools were ranked 142nd," Turner said. "By 2014, we were Kentucky's 12th best. They've made so many gains and now they're gonna have to start over, and try to figure out how to get back to where they are."

"The law would still require a uniform state accountability and assessment system," he said. "Right
now what we have are four very prescriptive options for improving schools that are sort of a one-size-fits-none situation. Ironically, (Bill #1) removes a number of elements...the unintended
consequence is that test scores are left with a bigger slice of the pie, which could lead to more teaching to the test."
 
JCTA members met with Senators and Representatives as Bill #1 was being drafted, he said. The House has sent it to its own Education Committee for review, but McKim doubts the lower chamber will vote on it before the March 8 special elections to fill vacant seats. If Republicans win all four, the party breakdown becomes 50-50, and Democrats lose their majority for the first time in 95 years.

Sen. Julian Carroll (D-Frankfort) cautioned lawmakers that changing standards could impact federal dollars. Changes in federal rules may be more than a year away, after a new President is elected and takes office.

We will never achieve the near-perfection in our educational process in Kentucky, until we first sit down and make certain we're headed in the right direction," said Carroll, who served as Governor from 1974-79.

"The biggest concern, which for many is a deal-breaker is that it's getting ahead of the federal law," McKim said. "And we really don't know what that landscape is gonna be."

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