State takeover of Jefferson schools a different, necessary government intervention

Published 8:45 am Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Guest columnist

Some critics claim this columnist’s support for a state intervention of the failing Jefferson County Public Schools’ (JCPS) system is inconsistent with his general lack of appetite for outside interference, such as his strong opposition to devastating Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency regulations that decimated Kentucky’s coal industry, its hardworking miners and regions’ economies.

Email newsletter signup

An EPA intervention might have been more defensible if pollution levels were worsening and posing serious threats to the health of all residents in coal-mining Appalachia.

Instead, clean-coal technology and practices now produce water in some coal-mining streams that rivals, in cleanness, what’s coming out of spigots in nearby homes.

Despite the great improvements made in air and water quality through the years, the ideologically-driven Obama regulators drove on, determined to — as their fearless comrade promised — “bankrupt” the entire coal industry and begin the final descent of fossil fuels into an ocean intended to flood America with heavily taxpayer-subsidized windmills and solar panels.

Progressives driven by ideology fight to avoid confronting the failure of their policies while fantasizing about imaginary, fantastical portraits of utopia and collectivism rather than acknowledging the ugliness staring them in the face — an ugliness they, in fact, help paint.

Despite these portraits’ utter unsightliness — the failure of solar panel companies to live up to promises attached to subsidies and worsening achievement gaps in our largest school districts that pose serious threats to poor children’s futures — opponents of reform seek, as former JCPS Chief Academic Officer Dewey Hensley indicted in his blistering resignation letter, to look good rather than be good.

Hensley, who now serves as principal of Second Street Elementary School in Frankfort, bemoaned the “pseudo-innovation” he witnessed during his tenure at JCPS, claiming valuable time was “devoted less to developing quality schools for children and more about managing perceptions for adults.”  

He also talked about the emphasis on “perception above reality,” known in modern political vernacular as painting-lipstick-on-the-pig syndrome.

Perhaps if Hensley, who, as principal, led a stunning makeover that turned JCPS’ Atkinson Academy — the lowest-performing the entire commonwealth when he took over — into an academic success despite rising poverty rates among its student body, had been allowed to implement his exciting and proven reforms across the entire district, the need for an unusual intervention would not exist.

The district’s leadership and union-bought-and-paid-for school board often prefer attacking the messenger rather than addressing the ugliness staring them in the face.

Board members, bureaucrats and their fellow defenders of the failed status quo were, for example, hopping mad about former Education Commissioner Terry Holliday’s assessment that the district’s growing achievement gaps between white and black students in key academic areas represented “academic genocide” and “apartheid.”

What else should it be called when 91 percent of the district’s — and all of Kentucky’s — black eighth-graders failed to reach proficiency in math last year, and a 23-point gap in reading proficiency between the school district’s whites and blacks in 2015 ballooned to a 35-point gap in 2017?

Super-strong ideology is needed to hide such ugliness.

I doubt those same angry protesters would hesitate for a moment to advocate for — and hotly criticize opposition to — outside intervention if black or Hispanic citizens were being denied a seat at Louisville’s lunch counters because of the color of their skin.

Doesn’t consistency demand display of the same civil-rights fervor when poor black students in Kentucky’s largest school district are clearly denied a seat at the table of opportunity by being disproportionately forced into failing schools run by the most inexperienced teachers — all because the ideologically driven are willing to block the doorway to a brighter future for them in order to guard against parent-centered school choice, incentive pay for great teachers and a loss of union power, money and control?

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 and @bipps on Twitter.