Commentary: Through compromise, an effort to do a ‘makeover’ not a ‘takeover’ of JCPS

By Keith L. Runyon

After months of uncertainty, it appears that efforts are underway to avoid a takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools by the state Board of Education. That is welcome news. As the days unfold, the effort to do a “makeover,” rather than a takeover of JCPS should be boosted by a joint spirit of compromise and given encouragement by leaders in our community and in Frankfort.

Last week, acting Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis presented the Louisville system with a one-page proposal and a two-day deadline for avoiding a takeover. It wasn’t viable realistically but, indeed, it offered an opening for negotiations. And in the spirit of compromise the state extended the deadline.

Keith L Runyon

In response, both JCPS board chairman Diane Porter and Superintendent Marty Pollio responded with guarded optimism. And in a week when compromise seemed to be in the air, both Mayor Greg Fischer and a strong editorial in the Courier-Journal encouraged just that.

Let’s hope that effort continues. The substance of the give-and-take was laid out in a Courier-Journal article, which unfortunately was cast as a kind of loss for the state. A banner headline in Wednesday’s edition said, “Is state backing down on JCPS?”

Small wonder Lewis took umbrage at the characterization, having to defend his position. “With the safety of students in JCPS at stake, we have not and will not back down from the position that the department must play a role in the management of the district until the district can demonstrate the ability to implement corrective actions with fidelity across its many deficiencies,” Lewis wrote in a news release.

He’s right. Student safety AND education must be paramount in further discussions. And each side must be focused on finding a compromise that further erodes faith in local educators and elected board members to provide solutions through true compromise.

We hear that word less and less often in these highly charged, partisan times. Somewhere along the way in the last 40 years, the notion that a little give-and-take can achieve real progress seemed to die. Most strikingly it happened in the governing body best known, historically, for compromise: the U.S. Senate. But hardened silos of opinion exist in many, many spheres. Certainly, the Bevin administration in Frankfort has been an example. And the governor’s prevaricating idol in Washington, the president, has led the way.

But back to the Senate. In the body that once was home to noted people of compromise, the leadership has shown a stunning unwillingness to budge, once a position has been taken. And we can’t just pin it on Republicans, either. Democrats turned Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 into the kind of public, partisan fight we now know all too well. And in the years since, partisan rigidity has become all too common in the Senate.

Contrast that with one of the most striking examples of bipartisanship in our nation’s history: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to Everett M. Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate at that time, the act was “an idea whose time (had) come,” quoting French novelist Victor Hugo. The votes in Congress reflected that: The law, which among other things made illegal discrimination in public accommodations, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 290-130. Fully 80 percent of Republicans (138-34) supported the bill, while 61 percent of Democrats (152-96) did.

In the Senate, the process was harder because the historic stalling strategy of the filibuster had to be broken, ending what was the longest use of that tactic in history. In the end, more than two-thirds of Senators voted for the law with a margin of 73-27, but again, it was the Republicans who gave it the strongest support, 82 percent, with 27 yeas and a mere six nays. In 1964, Democrats supported the Civil Rights Act by a margin 46-21.

From Reconstruction times until the 1960s, the Republicans were the “Party of Lincoln” and they enjoyed broad support among those African-Americans who had the right to vote. Of course, in the South, the vestiges of Jim Crow laws made registration at times a matter of life and death. That began to end in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed.

In the years that followed, principles like affirmative action, school desegregation achieved through busing, and other means pushed America toward a fairer, more just society. Here in Louisville, the court-ordered busing that began in the fall of 1975 has continued in one form or another (even without the federal court supervision) over 43 years. The children who were first-graders when it began are now well into middle age, and the older ones are nearing retirement.

It must be said here that the way the desegregation plan was imposed did not involve much compromise. The federal appeals court directed Louisville District Judge James Gordon to make it happen, and even though he may have had objections privately, he made it work through near-dictatorial powers.

Strong support from the newspapers, civic and business leaders and the religious community helped ease the tension. And for all its flaws, busing achieved one thing that was badly needed in the segregated and unequal Louisville and Jefferson County schools: a balance that made it impossible for children to grow up in an all-white or all-black world.

Many of the issues reflected in the recent audit of JCPS conducted by the state Department of Education involve minority and low-income children. Inferior educational opportunities, or at least segregated schooling, has been a fact of life for many, many years. And it cannot be reversed, or better still solved, until more efforts are made. All across America, big city school districts have faced similar problems.

But there are no easy solutions. A spirit of give-and-take must inform the actions of all parties, and especially those in Frankfort who are newcomers to both education and to leadership. Taking a leaf from the story of Sen. Everett Dirksen would be a good place to start. It’s not a matter of one side “backing down,” for this isn’t a sports contest or a street fight. And certainly, all people of goodwill must wish both sides well.

Keith L. Runyon is a retired editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal, where he was a writer and an editor for 43 years. He was the last serving member of the Bingham-era editorial board.