Jim Waters: Not all superintendents oppose school choice; KY should offer students “a bit of choice”
Gov. Andy Beshear issued his promised veto on House Bill 9, which funds Kentucky’s public charter schools. Beshear’s veto will delight the teachers’ unions, his ideological soulmates who played a crucial role in his election.
And that’s what’s expected of a group for whom opposing meaningful reforms holding schools accountable or giving parents alternatives are litmus tests of whether lawmakers get a campaign contribution or a main adversary.
However, not even teachers’ unions hammered their forks as hard as superintendents and other administrators to oppose — as Louisville Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher described HB 9 — giving some Kentucky families “a little of choice”.
Such opposition, however, is not found in every school district across the country.
Leaders in some of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing districts are embracing choice, particularly as a means of motivating real change in the traditional public school system.
Alberto Carvalho recently completed a 13-year term leading Miami-Dade County Public Schools — America’s fourth-largest school district — and its nearly 350,000 students, nearly seven in 10 of whom qualify. at free and discounted lunches.
Not only are 90% of Miami-Dade students minorities, but a significant number are immigrants and English learners; nearly three-quarters of them are enrolled in choice programs in a district that now offers families access to more than 500 out-of-district schools not available 20 years ago.
That’s a slew of options even in a state rich in school choices like Florida where, according to Education Next, 45% of all K-12 students have attended “something other than their assigned schools.” in 2018.
Miami-Dade is a neighborhood where all sorts of options not only exist but are thriving, including charter schools that offer public choice and private schools accessible with scholarships.
Carvalho thinks the kind of appropriate pressure applied when parents or guardians can make the ultimate choice of where their children attend school makes everyone more demanding.
“We now work in an educational environment that is driven by choice,” Carvalho said. “I think that’s a good thing.”
He adds: “We really have to commit to this movement of choice.”
Certainly Florida, rich in choice, has seen one of the strongest growths of any state in educational alternatives – and in progress.
A recent analysis of eighth-grade reading results on the National Report Card shows that white students in Florida between 1998 and 2019 fell from 29th to ninth place among the 36 states that participated in both years.
At the same time, white eighth-graders in Kentucky dropped from 28th to 32nd place.
“Rather than complaining about the arrival of the tsunami of choice, we’re going to ride it,” Carvalho said upon his arrival in Miami.
It wasn’t just about talking.
Carvalho himself designed iPrep Academy, a school of choice to which 3,355 students applied for 112 places opened in 2018.
In October 2019, Education Next reported that it had spearheaded the expansion of Miami-Dade’s choice, adding charter and magnet schools, career academies, and international programs to the point that the district’s portfolio of educational options “is unrivaled in Florida and perhaps anywhere else in the country.”
The results are simply amazing.
In 2018, Miami-Dade students’ reading performance ranked in the top three among Florida’s largest school districts in six of the eight grades tested — vastly different from a decade earlier in 2008, when they were near the bottom of the state’s 14 largest systems. The Miami-Dade Blacks are in the top five.
If he were superintendent in the State of Bluegrass, I can’t imagine a trailblazing leader like Carvalho joining the opposition in offering “little choice” to parents in Kentucky.
In fact, it would probably grow a lot more.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. He can be reached at [email protected] and @bipps on Twitter.