Kentucky board of education

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis says more funding is not the sole solution to Kentucky’s education woes.

More funding won’t solve Kentucky’s education issues alone, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the state board of education Wednesday.

Teachers and other education advocates frequently say schools need more money to better serve students, both through the classroom and support services like mental health care. Funding is important, yes, but it needs to be paired with policy reform to ensure it is spent equitably and reaches vulnerable students, Lewis said in a report to the board.

If you add more money to the current system, “you will have better funded, inequitable systems,” Lewis said. In a two-page report tied to his comments, Lewis encouraged district leaders to ensure equitable funding across schools.

For example, low-income, minority or other disadvantaged students are less likely to have career and technical education opportunities, Lewis said. They’re less likely to have experienced teachers — some of whom are “less effective,” Lewis said — with newer teachers given more difficult classrooms and schools.

New funding will not solve those inequities, he said, but policy reform may. Performance-based pay, the idea teachers and administrators should be paid more based on student performance, might be one of those changes, he said.

To reporters, he said he wasn’t interested in the state dictating what districts should do. Instead, he wants to change state statute to give districts greater flexibility to do what works best for them — including performance pay. He said flexibility-focused changes were also on the department’s legislative agenda this past spring.

Jefferson County Public Schools do not use performance pay but began using bonuses as a way to attract teachers to low-performing schools this school year.

Advocates for the model say more money based on performance — either as bonuses or base pay grades — can encourage teachers to improve student scores or attract talent. Lewis told reporters other fields use incentives — why not education?

“There is no incentive right now to be a great teacher,” he told the board.

Critics say it puts too much onus on teachers, sometimes not accounting for students facing difficult home lives or those coming in behind academically. In reacting to Lewis’ comments, some teachers on social media said it would give teachers a good reason to avoid struggling schools or kids.

He did not share potential budget requests at Wednesday’s meeting, over six months from the start of the legislative budget session. He noted he does not know where additional funding for education could come from in the budget.

Some board members pushed against Lewis. The state board finance chairwoman Kathy Gornik questioned whether the Kentucky Department of Education or schools needed more money, suggesting additional funding does not lead to better results.

“I don’t really care to talk about more money — I care to talk about structural reform,” Gornik said. “Black kids are in crisis. I think it is time we do something more profound than ask for more money.”

In her argument, she said California pays the most of all states per-pupil but is last in “the rankings.” Alex Spurrier, a Louisville-based education analyst at Bellwether Education, quickly disputed the assertion. When adjusted for market costs, California is among the lowest spenders on a per-pupil basis, he said. Both California and Kentucky are around the middle of academic performance.

“(Too long, didn’t read) CA isn’t a high-spending, low-achieving state,” he tweeted.

Black students in Kentucky appear less likely to move out of novice — the lowest of state test scores — than their white peers, Lewis said, sharing new data in his report. Or they will move from novice in third grade, hit a higher level in fourth through sixth grades, before returning to novice by eighth grade.

“Friends, this is criminal,” he said.

Around two-thirds of students who scored novice in math in third grade began scoring at higher levels and continued at that level before eighth grade, according to KDE data. Less than half of black students did the same. KDE officials did not know why some students stayed novice or jumped up then fell back down.

After Lewis’ report, Jefferson County Superintendent Marty Pollio told the board that the district has fixed 43% of its corrective action plan goals with the state. The plan, which helped the district avoid a state takeover last fall, requires the district to make hundreds of changes before a second audit in fall 2020.

Pollio expects to have the plan completed on time, but both he and Lewis said the difficult part is continuing to implement the plan. “These are not things that you can say, ‘It’s done with and it’s over with.’ We have to continue even we move it to green,” Pollio said.

“I would say my recommendation that JCPS become a state-managed district has yielded positive results in the district,” Lewis said.

This post has been updated.