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Widening learning gaps show need for options

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute

By JIM WATERS

The Bluegrass Institute

Achievement gaps aren't even mentioned by Martin Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor of business and economics who represented the opposition in the Bluegrass Institute's recently published online debate: "Does Kentucky need charter schools?"

But ignoring academic achievement gaps for poor racial minorities and the learning disabled won't close them or diminish their seriousness. Whether you look at figures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Nation's Report Card, or the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (KPREP), gaps - especially for black students - aren't only significant, but widening.

So it's tough to understand how Professor Solomon, Ph.D., who himself enjoys the great advantages that educational achievement offers, doggedly opposes public charter schools - one of the proven approaches to closing gaps and changing the lives of literally thousands of minority Americans in other states.

In 42 states and in cities from New Orleans to Chicago and Nashville to Indianapolis, children from families trapped in poverty and despair - where not even a single person for generations has received a high-school diploma, much less attended college - have been emancipated by charter schools operating according to this principle: "failure is not an option."

These schools also are closing another gap: the freedom gap. Frederick Douglas, the great slave-turned-abolitionist, often thundered about this chasm: "There can be no freedom without education."

Solomon, by placing poverty at the top of the list of excuses as to why public education is failing too many Kentucky students, lends dangerous credibility to a frequently heard excuse that, if not properly addressed, could relegate thousands of minorities to a life of dependency.

"The root cause of our public schools not topping most of the other nations is poverty," Solomon writes. "Reformers almost always blame teachers and can therefore claim that new schools are the answer, without ever examining carefully such assumptions - including the effects of poverty on poor academic performance as opposed to poor teaching."

What are we to do, oh thou wise Solomon? Should we throw up our collective hands and simply surrender to a system that claims it cannot be held accountable for failing disadvantaged kids?

I will agree that teachers - at least the many good ones - should not shoulder the blame. They're constrained by a system that seems to have concluded that poor kids from the other side of the tracks don't deserve the liberty that Douglas from his own experience knew comes with a great education.

There's something wrong with a system that simply moves 450 students and their teachers at the abysmally performing Myers Middle School in Louisville - where only 11 percent are proficient in math - to Waggener High School, another failing school, simply because union-controlled elites on the school board gave up.

There's something wrong with a system that shuns options for parents while seriously underserving black students:

n NAEP testing clearly shows gaps in reading and math proficiency between Kentucky's black and white students are widening.

n The math proficiency gap is more than twice as large for Kentucky's white and black eighth-graders today as it was when NAEP first began state testing on this subject in 1990.

n The gap between fourth-grade black and white students in reading proficiency has increased by 8 points since NAEP first began testing in 1992.

Kentucky can do better by granting parents of these students the freedom to choose a better path for their children.

UK education professor and Kentucky Charter Schools Association chairman Wayne Lewis, Solomon's debate opponent, said that while passing charter school legislation won't "fix all that ails education in Kentucky," it "will absolutely result in the creation of additional high quality public school options for children currently trapped in schools that none of us would want our children to attend."

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free market think tank.

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