Jim Waters

Jim Waters

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited inner-city Louisville recently, bringing a declaration sure to refire Kentucky’s charter-school movement.   

DeVos announced the federal Department of Education will no longer prohibit religiously affiliated public charter schools.

The department has already stopped discriminating against schools participating in programs funded by state taxpayers simply because they’re housed at a church or contract with religiously affiliated organizations – an action the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.

DeVos sought and received an opinion from the Justice Department indicating the high court’s ruling could also apply to charter schools.

No longer will her agency “discriminate, and will allow for and welcome religiously affiliated applicants for the charter school program,” DeVos announced to enthusiastic applause at a policy roundtable hosted by Midwest Church of Christ in Louisville’s West End and co-hosted by the Bluegrass Institute and Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition, a group of influential Black pastors pushing for education reform to help overcome racism, violence and the despair that far too long has plagued America’s cities.

In my introduction of the secretary, I noted that while we find ourselves in a time of disruption, “this is not a time which lacks opportunities.”

While I’ve long been optimistic that Kentucky parents would eventually have access to the kind of private-school options available to parents in 18 other states through a voucher or tax-credit scholarship program, I never dreamed we’d be looking at the possibility of federal dollars for religiously affiliated charters.

Obviously, Madam Secretary was serious when she insisted that Kentucky needs to get serious about charter schools.

Since, as DeVos reminded, Kentucky passed a charter-school bill in 2017 “but the politicians here haven’t taken action on actually funding them,” could religiously affiliated applicants clear a path toward the opening of some charters while we wait for state lawmakers to sideline teachers’-union opponents and advance educational liberty in our commonwealth?

Buoyed by the possibilities, the pastors opened up to DeVos about the consequences of a lack of choices for minority children who live in — and have been failed by — the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) district.

Spirit of Love Center Pastor Derek Wilson, who helped found Destiny Academy — now in its third year of educating low-income students in inner-city Louisville — said the church started the school because its leaders “were tired of seeing so many African-American children fall through the cracks.”

The data support Wilson’s tough but true claim: JCPS’ monopoly on public education results in a lack of charters and other publicly funded alternatives for Louisville parents whose children are trapped in failing schools — a situation disproportionately impacting low-income minorities — and is a form of “institutional racism."

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that between 2015 and 2019, JCPS’ Black fourth graders lost more than an entire year of schooling in their reading performance and nearly a year in math.

The district’s black eighth graders, meanwhile, lost around 80% of an entire school year in their reading performance.

White students, meanwhile, scored notably better even though they largely treaded water in reading and math.

That’s the pre-pandemic story.

The virus and the education system’s response to it has undoubtedly made the situation much worse for disadvantaged students.

Imagine how much wider the gaps and shoddier the situation is now with thousands of disadvantaged students bearing the brunt of locked-down schools and lack of opportunities for a better education and brighter futures by an entrenched system totally unprepared for change.

It’s hard to see charters — even those backed by a religiously affiliated group — doing worse than what’s being provided by the maintainers of public education’s monopoly.  

It's impossible to justify keeping options like charter schools out of reach for Kentucky families, particularly since they primarily help low-income and minority students.

It’s time for this “institutional racism” to end.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com

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