The Jefferson County Public Schools serve more than 100,000 students in metropolitan Louisville. The system is the nation's tenth largest. And it is undeniably a mess.
We find irony in the fact that the schools in arguably the state's most liberal city are on the verge of a state takeover under provisions of that one-time monument to liberalism -- the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.
Last week Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis formally recommended a state takeover of the Louisville system. His recommendation is certain to be approved by the Kentucky Board of Education, which now consists of wall-to-wall appointees of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
There are political undercurrents here to be sure, the most obvious being charter schools. Lewis, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, is a proponent of charter schools. So is Gov. Bevin. And so most presume are the 12 Kentucky Board of Education members Bevin has selected.
If the board approves Lewis' recommendation he will effectively take charge of the Louisville schools. That would give him authority to replace the local superintendent and elected board, although Lewis says he intends to do neither. He says he will entrust JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio to continue to oversee day-to-day operations and will retain the local board in an advisory capacity.
The action comes in the wake of a year-long state audit of the system. That report concluded a state takeover is appropriate given the plethora of serious problems.
The Louisville system is failing miserably in its core role of education. The achievement gap between African-American students and their white counterparts is vast and growing. Only 18 percent of black high school students are proficient in math compared to 46 percent of white students. In reading 60 percent of white high schoolers are proficient compared to 32 percent of blacks.
The widening gap is disturbing to be sure. But even the performance of white students is wanting. The Louisville system is widely blamed for dragging down state averages and causing Kentucky to perform poorly in national comparisons.
The reason charter schools loom large in this scenario is that historically the educational environment presented by the Louisville system is precisely the sort in which charters have performed well with time. In fact it is about the only thing the state has in its arsenal that might move the needle.
Republican majorities in the General Assembly passed legislation a year ago authorizing charter schools. But they were typically feckless in doing so. Kentucky's law essentially empowers local boards to decide whether charter schools can exist in their districts and under what terms. That's like empowering owners of a local grocery to decide if Kroger can build a store in their county.
But Louisville will have no such obstacle with Lewis and the state board running the show. Charter schools are near in Louisville and we think it is the right thing to do.
Charter school critics -- teachers unions being the most vocal -- claim charters will destroy public education by syphoning money and good students from the public system. But that is true only if the public system fails to react and compete. If it does compete that raises performance in the public system as well. In fact this is the primary reason behind the charter school concept.
This concept will be tested in Louisville. Soon. We are fine with that, because at this point Louisville's schools don't measure up, and more than 100,000 Kentucky students are paying the price.