It’s not often an Ivy League-educated venture capitalist – the scion of arguably Louisville’s most famous contemporary entrepreneur – runs for a seat on the school board of a large urban school system.
But it happened here.
David Jones, Jr., son of Humana founder David Jones and founder and chairman of Chrysalis Ventures, defeated three other candidates to win the District 2 seat, representing the Highlands on the Jefferson County Board of Education.
The fact that Jones was running for such a high-demand/low-reward office puzzled most people and led to charges he was running to enrich himself, to manipulate state insurance contracts in favor of Humana, where he remains on the board of directors.
The absurdity of that aside, a business leader running for school board makes a certain kind of sense. Businesspeople and investors everywhere are concerned about work-force quality, because entrepreneurs can’t build high-performing, innovative businesses with illiterate people. Large corporations can’t hire ill-prepared people.
This is also a pivotal time in education reform in Louisville. Scores under a new standardized testing methodology went out this week to more than half the students in the Jefferson County Public Schools system. Common Core State Standards in English and math have been adopted by 47 states and tie domestic scores to international student achievement standards. The majority of JCPS schools posted aggregate scores far below previous testing benchmarks with the exception of a few schools, including the J.Graham Brown School and duPont Manual High School, both magnet schools.
Insider Louisville CEO Tom Cottingham and Director of Content Terry Boyd sat down December 6 with Jones for a one-hour, 12 minute interview.
That interview will be presented verbatim in two installments. In this first installment, Jones discusses how education got to where it is today. In the second installment, Jones discusses the school board and JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, as well as reforms and initiatives he believes can elevate the system to world standards.
Terry Boyd: Tom and I both went back and read the stories and interviews from the School Board race, and Tom found out the school system has four goals.
Tom Cottingham: You have these four goals … the first one I believe is to have every student graduate. JCPS’s drop-out is higher than the rest of Kentucky … about 38 percent.
David Jones, Jr.: No, it’s about 30 percent. You have to figure out what the definition of “drop-out” is. Ninth-graders who begin high school, what percentage do not complete? It’s a high rate. It’s about average for the United States. The JCPS rate is higher than Kentucky.
TC: How do you improve graduation while you maintain or improve standards, which is the second goal?
DJ: The strategy as I understand it … (the school board) did their first strategic plan last year and put this out at the time Dr. Hargens came. Under her leadership, they came up with these four goals … The core of it is, every child graduates, and every child graduates ready for either college or career. That second piece is where you get the tie-in to this national common core standard movement.
TC: And we’re going to be among the first states to adopt this, right?
DJ: We’re the first to adopt it, and we’re the first state to test under those standards. To get to the layout of goals – goals with which I strongly agree – this college- and career-ready definition ties in with “common core” state standards, because in the U.S. we can’t say “national standards” because education is a state matter.
But 47 states have independently adopted the same standard. That standard is benchmarked against the best practices worldwide. Finland, Singapore, Shanghai … whatever you think might be the best standard, the states got together and said, “That’s the worldwide best. That’s what we’re aiming at.”
Then if you step down to the next level – how do you know how you’re doing – that’s where Kentucky was the first (state) to assess student performance against that standard. So the testing data that just came out before the election is the first time any state has said, “Okay, how are we doing?” I’m going to be real honest and say I don’t completely understand all the data that’s come out. It’s a big data set. The first thing the state released ranked both school districts and schools within the districts within Kentucky. So they didn’t rank compared to Finland. They said, “How are the schools in Kentucky doing?” Jefferson County is in the 23rd percentile of Kentucky. Alright?
So 77 percent of the districts rank higher than Jefferson County. That’s discouraging. However, there are other pieces … in college and in career readiness … each year the percentage of kids who are finishing college-career ready has gone up, starting from a very low level. But that 23rd percentile is not acceptable. This is a great metropolitan area with a lot of resources, a lot of opportunities for kids to learn.
TB: But don’t you want to ask what the hell happened? Or is that even germane? Do we just move past it?
DJ: No, I think ‘What the hell happened” is a … I’m not surprised by that 23rd percentile. At all. The reason I decided to run for school board is the things that have been known for a long time and are in plain view. The school system works pretty well for about half the kids in it. There are roughly 100,000 kids in the system. We’ve already said about 30 percent don’t graduate. Of those who do graduate and go on to the Jefferson Community and Technical College System, 64 percent have to take remedial courses.
In my simple math … 30 percent don’t graduate and let’s say 20 percent who get a degree, but who aren’t ready for the future. Half of the kids don’t get an education, and we’ve known that around here for years. That came out in the Greater Louisville Project data in 2004 or 2006. So half of the kids do well. And we have about 130,000 kids in the metro area K through 12, and about 30,000 of them go to private schools. We have a great parochial system in this city. Not all cities have a great parochial system, so we’re really blessed with that. We have some great non-denominational private schools. About 30,000 kids go there. When you switch over to the political math of 130,000, let’s say 30,ooo, the families are paying tuition and presumably they think they’re getting good value for that. They’re getting what they want. Another 50,000 are doing well in the public schools. I think the political math is, those 80,000 out of the total of 130,000 come from families who participate in the political political process and mostly vote. The 50,000 who are failing and getting shuffled around to the low-performing schools come from really difficult economic circumstances … all the things in urban America that make it difficult for children to succeed. Those kids are not represented very well in the political process. So we have a system that for a long time has gone along with good results for – in simple math – half the kids.
TC: But do you really think … I’m very surprised you think it’s a political thing. I wouldn’t even put that in the top three.
DJ: It’s not only a political thing.
TC: I’m not saying I’m right. But you think about how dollars are distributed … is there a huge difference in the amount of money we pay per pupil in Shively versus the Highlands?
DJ: No, dollars follow the kids.
TC: So politics don’t affect the dollars. Politics don’t really affect the teacher assignments because that’s a union thing, and the teachers handle that. School boards don’t assign teachers. School boards hire superintendents. So, that’s not politics. Property taxes are the same for everybody. What I would argue isn’t that kids aren’t represented politically. What I’d argue is, kids aren’t represented parentally.
DJ: It’s a slightly different point. I think the question was, “How did this happen?” In my view, it didn’t happen all of a sudden. One thing that happened was, the system was designed to weed out kids who were going to work in the assembly plant or work on the farm from kids who were going on to academics. This is an industrial age system that was meant to identify kids with academic or professional potential. It used to be A-okay that half the kids didn’t get an education that readied them for college, because there were lots of good blue-collar jobs and people were going to work on the farm. So, the system was designed for a different era. Part of the problem is, the world has changed. Now, when people say “college and career ready” – there’s a lot of research on this – the idea is to succeed in college or to go to work in a modern manufacturing facility. You have to have the same basic preparation. You have to be literate. You have to be numerate. You have to be able to work on a team. You have to be able to communicate with people and you have to know how to learn. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be able to succeed at hardly anything. So the world has changed around the school system, and that’s really important.
But the other thing, and it’s a political problem in the way Medicaid has an underlying political problem – why Medicaid beneficiaries get such terrible service – is because they don’t vote and therefore they don’t have any politicians looking out for them. The powerful people in this community – and that includes all the people who are powerful because of politics – not just the people who are powerful because of money, their kids get taken care of by the system.
When these people – these voters – go shopping for a new computer, if the computer they buy has a 38-percent defect rate, do they sit quietly? No, they go crazy. But their kids aren’t exposed to that high (education) defect rate because it’s concentrated in schools where active families tend not to be. That’s the point. And it’s not by design. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. It’s the way the system coasts along year after year. And it’s really difficult to change. It’s not that people don’t want to make easy changes. It’s that there’s no political might to make more changes.