By Theresa Camoriano
Last week, I attended a Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) board meeting. Never before in my 62 years have I attended a meeting of a board that was so dysfunctional. I could feel the tension and distrust in the room. Board members were critical of the Superintendent, accusing her of trying to sneak things past them and of not providing sufficient information for them to do their jobs properly. There was a person from the food service workers union who had provided signed union cards from 690 of the 800 employees a month earlier and had asked to be on the agenda in order to apply to have the union recognized. She had been told she would be on the agenda, but then she found she was not on it. The Superintendent apologized for the “miscommunication”, but it was clear there was no miscommunication. It was not even clear that they would put her on the agenda for the next board meeting, since they said it would take time for them to do their “due diligence”. No wonder there was so much distrust in the room!
Board members acted confused and surprised about a report on magnet schools and about various other issues that were raised during the course of the meeting.
The board indicated its concern about the achievement gap between white students and black students and decided to put out a request for proposal for a consultant to study the possibility of establishing an all-male, predominantly black school that would eventually serve about 145 students after about two years of study and preparations. There were questions about legal issues – whether it would be legal to treat a group of black male students differently from other students. There were questions about spending large amounts of money on a program to serve so few students. Mrs. Porter made an emotional appeal, “If not now, when?”. She also said they had to do something now or someone else would. I got the impression that this was going to be a large money sink that would allow the board to say they were doing something about the achievement gap (throwing a bone to the black community) while not really doing anything of substance, and while continuing to trap low income students in schools that do not meet their needs.
Of course, there are successful programs around the country that could set up shop before the next school year to begin serving large numbers of students without the need for extensive and expensive studies, but the board did not express any interest in that.
The reason we attended the board meeting was that we had been informed that they were getting ready to adopt a sex education curriculum that had been drafted by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, without even letting parents know, and we wanted to oppose it. As it turned out, the sex education plan was not on the agenda. However, several people made formal comments about it at the end of the meeting. Apparently, there was training of teachers to implement the program the very next day, without any notice to the public or to parents. Not only would parents not be given the ability to opt out of that program or to choose a different program that would be in line with their values; they would not even be informed of what was going to be taught to their children!
The meeting was a very painful experience overall. The main take-away I had was that JCPS is a dysfunctional, bureaucratic mess. I take no comfort in knowing that this board is responsible for the education of more than 100,000 students – about one in 7 students in Kentucky – and for a budget of 1.4 billion dollars ($14,000 per student). The truth is, even if the board were more functional, a top down, command and control arrangement simply is not capable of meeting the educational needs of all students, each of whom has a unique learning style. JCPS is failing for the same reason that the Soviet Union failed. A force-based, top-down, command and control system simply is not responsive to the needs of its constituents.
I am very disappointed that I am being forced to provide my tax dollars to be used to trap children in this dysfunctional system.
It is clearer than ever that families and children need to have the ability to choose among a wide variety of educational programs. Big bureaucracies like JCPS may try to create artificial forms of accountability, but there is no accountability like the ability of a family to take its money from a school that is not meeting their children’s needs to a school that does meet those needs. When families have that kind of market power, the schools will have to focus on serving them or else go out of business. Providing a real, market-type accountability will raise the quality of education for all students.
(Theresa Camoriano is a patent attorney in Louisville, Kentucky.)
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