Diverse Group Demands Choice for Kentucky

Published May 1, 2008

A diverse coalition of parents, preachers, politicians, and legislative pioneers combined fervor with facts at a school choice rally at the center of Kentucky’s government in early March.

In the Capitol Rotunda, which bears statues of two famous Kentuckians representing different choices of a bygone era–President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, who presided over the short-lived Confederacy–black pastors and white lawmakers came together to proclaim educational emancipation for Kentucky’s students and their parents.

Civil rights leaders in Louisville–Kentucky’s largest school district, in which approximately one-third of the 98,000 students are black–stressed reforming the state’s woeful education system is the foremost civil-rights issue of our day.

“In Jefferson County, 75 percent of our black children in our high schools are reading below the standard–and we can’t take it no more,” said Pastor Jerry Stephenson, minister at West End Church of Christ and chairman of Values Coalition USA, a group calling for Kentuckians to return to traditional values. “We need charter schools. It’s time to take the shackles off of our families.”

‘It Takes a Village’

State Rep. Stan Lee (R-Lexington), the primary sponsor of a special-needs scholarship bill currently languishing in the legislature for the second consecutive year, is also sponsoring a bill that would make Kentucky the 41st state with a charter school law. Lee told those attending the rally that school choice supporters are making progress in “expanding the knowledge” about the issue and helping lawmakers become more comfortable with the idea.

House Bill 578 would allow local school districts, universities, and municipal and county governments to sponsor charter schools. A state commission would be established to oversee the development of charters throughout the state. In the bill’s current form, there is no ceiling on the number of charter schools that could open.

Using the old African proverb made famous by current presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, Stephenson said having charter schools in neighborhoods would encourage involvement by “the village” in its children’s education.

Stephenson called on parents, grandparents, businesses, and churches to re-engage themselves in the education progress.

“Not only does it take a village to raise a child, it takes a village to educate a child,” Stephenson said.

Village Voices

The rally represented the different voices in that village–including parents like Rebecca Rouch, one of several attending the rally to advocate for special-needs children.

Rouch said she and her husband were forced to remove their nine-year-old daughter from Kentucky’s public school system after being unable to secure there the services she needs for help with her learning disability.

“As much as I advocated on her behalf, I have not been able to receive the services she needed, and we were forced to go to a private school that specializes in kids with learning differences,” Rouch said. “There, all of the education and curriculum could be customized to better meet her learning needs.”

Paul DiPerna, director of partner services for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, told those attending the rally school choice programs for special-needs children in other states are growing, as is the satisfaction of participating parents.

Sound Economics

Having choices is good economics for local school districts, said DiPerna, who pointed to research by his foundation showing Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program–the longest-running special-needs scholarship program in the nation–saved local school districts more than $40 million last year. Surveys indicate McKay parents have been satisfied with the education and services their children are getting.

DiPerna expects the same from the parents of 900 students currently attending about 117 private schools in Georgia on scholarships averaging $6,200 apiece.

“The school choice movement is making progress around the country, and it’s gaining momentum,” DiPerna said. “I would love to come back here in a few years and [have] our foundation commission a survey and ask Kentucky parents what they think of their special-needs scholarship program.”

Huge Achievement Gaps

Although no survey was commissioned at the rally, civil-rights leaders left no question about where they stand on the need for innovation and more choices for parents.

According to the 2007 Kentucky State Performance Report, 45 percent of the state’s black elementary students scored below proficient in reading, compared to 25 percent of white students. The gaps between blacks and whites are even larger in math (21 points) and science (28 points). More than half of the state’s black elementary students are not proficient in math.

Choice Convert

Such disparities convinced retired University of Louisville professor Joseph McMillan, Ph.D. to become a recent convert to school choice.

“Until last year I was a strong proponent of public education because I saw it as the only way that our kids–black kids–could get an education in a segregated country,” said McMillan, who spent many years as a teacher and administrator in Michigan’s public schools and an education professor at Michigan State University before returning to Kentucky to teach at the University of Louisville. He taught there from 1976 until his retirement in 1996.

“Our kids are still not being educated in the public schools,” McMillan said. “So last year, in spite of my strong connection with public education, I changed my views about charter schools.”

McMillan, 79, a member of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Hall of Fame, said his son-in-law, a charter school principal in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, had been trying to convince him. It worked.

“You can count on me,” the elder education statesman said to a thunderous ovation.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.