Lewis: Without state help, JCPS incapable of making needed changes

Wayne Lewis, interim commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, said Wednesday that JCPS cannot implement needed changes to address serious deficiencies without the state’s help. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Wayne Lewis, interim commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, urged the Louisville community to focus less on his possible motivation for the proposed state takeover and more on the deficiencies within Jefferson County Public Schools.

Kentucky’s education leader said he recommended a state takeover of JCPS because, without the state’s help, district management is incapable of formulating and implementing a desperately needed improvement plan.

“It is extremely difficult to get to the place where a management review is even warranted. As a result of that management review, 30 deficiencies were identified,” Lewis said. “It’s even more difficult to qualify to go into a management audit. And then, when you’re talking about the evidence necessary to make the case that a district become state managed, it’s incredible. So the fact that we’re even having this conversation in any district in Kentucky should give us pause.”

The audit is the culmination of several layers of state investigations, “which the vast majority of districts in this commonwealth will never have to see,” he said.

On April 30, Lewis said the state should take over management of JCPS because an audit had uncovered a pattern of ineffective management at the local level. Lewis proposed leaving in place Superintendent Marty Pollio but stripping the Jefferson County Board of Education of its powers.

JCPS decided late last month that it would fight the recommendation.

Lewis said the state is preparing for a hearing before the state education board, which will listen to both sides before issuing a decision.

“In that hearing, I will make the case, that (state management) is the only route to make sure that kids are adequately kept safe and that we can make sure that the serious deficiencies identified in that audit are addressed,” Lewis said.

The interim commissioner made the remarks at a gathering of the Louisville Forum Wednesday afternoon.

Lewis told the standing-room-only crowd at Vincenzo’s Italian Restaurant that he’s gotten some pushback on his recommendation primarily related to the potential loss of local control. But he said he has “not heard much conversation about the extremely serious deficiencies.”

He also emphasized that neither political pressure from state leaders nor his advocacy for public charter schools had anything to do with his takeover recommendation.

“Will charter schools begin to address the deficiencies that got Jefferson County Public Schools into this? Absolutely not,” he said.

High-quality charter schools can be a tool — but only one among many — to help solve some issues the state and JCPS face, Lewis said. However, the majority of the problems must be addressed by traditional public schools because they will continue to educate the vast majority of Kentucky’s kids.

Following prepared remarks by the interim commissioner, Louisville Forum members asked questions; however, to the chagrin of some attendees, Lewis declined to answer a number of questions, especially those related to any potential improvement plan for JCPS.

“The plan, according to law, is to be developed after a determination has been made by the state board of education,” Lewis said. “And I am going to follow the law.”

The interim commissioner dismissed some other questions because he said they related to the development or implementation of an improvement plan.

“I will not be speaking to a plan,” he said. “I’m following the law.”

One audience member asked Lewis whether he could point to another state takeover that the KDE could use as a model for success.

“There’s none that I would point to and say that … it would be an example or a model that we would use,” Lewis said.

He also said he hopes that once state management is no longer needed, the process would leave behind “a change of culture in the district, a change in the way we think about kids … that we treat the most vulnerable children … with the same respect and the same care that we treat children who come from more privileged backgrounds.

“Because that … is not what I see today.”

Lessons and priorities

Wayne Lewis

In prepared remarks, Lewis recounted three anecdotes involving students he taught and the lessons he learned from them:

  • While teaching in New Orleans, Lewis had trouble reaching a student who earned money dealing drugs. Lewis said that he initially expected that if the student simply paid attention, he would be OK. But, Lewis said, he soon realized that he was wrong because the student, for multiple reasons, had not been prepared for the class. “Context matters tremendously,” Lewis said.
  • A seventh-grader told him, “I don’t know why you’re on me so hard. You know that black people can’t do math.” Lewis said that he learned from that interaction that without changing the mindset of some students, it doesn’t matter how well teachers teach.
  • A high school student with emotional and behavioral problems would not do anything that Lewis asked of him. Lewis said he could not even get the student to sit down in his chair. The student could not read and lacked some very basic math skills. That taught him that sometimes the system fails kids, he said, but sometimes teachers also lack the capacity to reach kids in the way that they need to be reached.

Lewis also laid out policy priorities:

  • High school graduation requirements: Lewis said the state has to review the requirements because it issues diplomas to some kids who can neither read nor do basic mathematics. “It’s immoral,” Lewis said. “It ought to be criminal.”
  • College and career readiness: The state has to increase the share of students who are ready for either college or a career, he said. Of the students who receive a high school diploma, about 40 percent do not possess the skills or knowledge to be deemed by the state as ready for either college or a career. That means, Lewis said, that a diploma for those students “doesn’t really mean anything” because it represents only “a certificate of attendance.”
  • Achievement gaps: The state has to figure out how to close achievement gaps that exist among students of different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds and disability status, he said. The gaps, in some cases, have widened because students who have traditionally done well continue to improve, while students who have traditionally struggled are not getting better. “It’s unconscionable,” Lewis said.
  • Skills gap: The state must close the skills gap as well, he said. Kentucky employers have about 200,000 open jobs, some of them with good wages, for which they cannot find qualified applicants.

Lewis also warned that many of the problems Kentucky and JCPS face, particularly those regarding hard-to-reach kids, cannot be solved easily.

“I don’t have THE answer. There’s probably not AN answer,” Lewis said. “There are complex reasons as to why we got to the place we did with achievement. And it’s going to take really complex solutions to address those issues.”