KSBA eNews Service, Frankfort, Dec. 7, 2015
Commissioner won’t “lead the charge” for charters, but wants public ed involved if issue moves in '16 legislature
by Brad Hughes
Louisville -- Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt told superintendents Sunday that the new elementary and secondary education law nearing passage in Congress can be “an incredible opportunity” for Kentucky. But he cautioned that new flexibility in the replacement of the 14-year-old No Child Left Behind Act means both “the most exciting and hardest of times in Kentucky education history.”
In his first major address since starting work Oct. 16, Pruitt also told an audience of nearly 150 at the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents’ winter conference that he will oppose charter school legislation in the 2016 legislature if it takes funds away from traditional public schools. But he urged district CEOs to keep an open mind about the option of “public charter schools,” authorized by and accountable to local boards of education and the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE).
Introduced by KBE Chairman and former Marion Co. Superintendent Roger Marcum, Pruitt bounded off the stage and into the hall to spend more than an hour on remarks principally focused on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – which could gain Congressional passage Tuesday – and the upcoming legislative session.
The former Georgia Department of Education chief of staff said he’s had a lot of questions about whether he’s nervous or concerned since Republican Matt Bevin won the governor’s office. Bevin campaigned against Kentucky’s use of common core academic standards and for opening the state to charters.
“There is a new governor (but) I didn’t come here to work for a governor or a General Assembly. I came here to work for Kentucky kids,” Pruitt said. “I’ve already spent time trying to build relationships (with legislators). As long as people are working for kids, I’m going to work with them. As soon as they start working against kids, we’re going to have a problem. I’m here for the kids of Kentucky.”
Pruitt described the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act as an effort “thrust upon states by people who really didn’t understand about states and districts.” The early details of the new ESSA, he said, mean Kentucky should be able “to do something world class” with things like the Unbridled Learning assessment and accountability system – which Pruitt called too complex – and related program reviews whereby districts self-measure progress in areas such as arts and humanities, writing and world languages.
Saying he would seek input before any changes are made to comply with the new law by the 2017-18 school year, Pruitt shared some ideas for starting points.
“Personally, I don’t want a system that celebrates only outcomes,” he said. “I think the idea of just assessing kids or a school or a district on their ability to score X percent on math and reading only has got to be days gone by. We’ve got to be able to involve other subjects.
"I’m excited about Kentucky’s new science standards because they will give you lots of formative data that lets you see how kids are progressing and lets teachers know how things are at the end of the year,” he said. “I think we can go back and apply (the principles of the science standard assessments) to English language arts and math (the original Kentucky Core Academic Standards) and then to social studies.
“I want a system where we don’t rank districts 1 to 173, because that pits us against each other and makes it harder for us to collaborate,” he said.
Additionally, Pruitt said he would have a panel that will be called "the gamers’ committee.”
“Their job is going to be to take whatever we do and figure out every way someone can game the system. If they can game it, are they gaming it for the betterment of kids?” Pruitt said.
Public charter schools
Acknowledging that “there’s a lot of churning about what’s coming,” Pruitt told his audience that “You won’t see me leading the charge for charter schools, but if it looks like (the issue is moving in the legislature), I’d rather be at the table than have it become a situation that just happens to us. At the end of the day, the authority should remain with local superintendents and boards with state oversight.”
“I will be against anything that takes public money away from our kids,” the commissioner said. “My job is to try to ensure that you guys have a stake in it as opposed to someone coming in from the outside who’s in it to make money.”
Pruitt said Kentucky has done many “charter-like” things such as the Districts of Innovation, a program in which a handful of districts/schools are receiving relief from state regulations. But he also said charter schools have worked in some states and Kentucky can learn from lessons in those experiences.
Other than a loss of funds for public schools, Pruitt’s concerns about charter school legislation include ensuring a charter’s student selection process does not produce a “segregated" enrollment, and the possible creation of a state government chartering commission, which could overturn a local school board’s decision on charter applications.
“In Georgia, we learned that the local boards and the state can’t be afraid to pull a charter that’s not doing what’s best for kids,” he said. (But) we had a state commission that approved a charter application that we (at the Georgia Department of Education) had denied.”
Pruitt said charter schools should only be allowed to gain regulatory relaxation through “a contract with the local board and the KBE that states 'We’re going to cut the achievement gap in three years, or we’re going to raise achievement – some actual measurement.'
“I don’t like politics; don’t enjoy it at all (but) you’ve got to decide what hill you’re going to die on. If we’re going to have them, we want to try to ensure it’s something we can live with,” he said. “We’re part of the 'Children’s Party,' and not any other.”
Other topics addressed
Pruitt said his new task force on program reviews will hold its first meeting this week.
“I’ve heard over and over the need to do something different. I hear you when you say program reviews are onerous and you aren’t getting good data out of it. My own folks agree. It’s not because anyone is calling anyone else a cheater; it’s the way the system was designed,” he said, adding that the panel’s first job will be to identify the research questions that need to be asked before making any changes. However, he said no changes regarding program reviews would be made in the middle of a school year.
Pruitt encouraged superintendents to be vocal with legislators about one of the legislative priorities for KDE and the KBE -- transportation.
“This is about us taking care of kids. We’re going to work really hard for that," he said. “That’s not just gas, that’s trying to make sure we don’t have 30-year old buses on the road.”
During a brief question and answer session, Pruitt was asked about his position regarding the existence of independent school systems – an issue he previously has declined to address until he had time to study matters such as nonresident student contracts.
“I actually don’t think we have a role in deciding that,” he said “That’s a slippery slope. The state government shouldn’t have a role in that it should be a local decision.”
The KASS Winter Conference continues today with a day-long series of leadership development sessions. It concludes Tuesday morning with a session that will feature the formal honoring of Daviess County Superintendent Owens Saylor as the Kentucky Association of School Administrators’ 2016 Superintendent of the Year.