The Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power! Index is an annual assessment of the educational opportunities afforded to parents across the country. By looking at each state’s charter school laws, school choice programs, teacher quality, and digital learning pathways, the CER aims to inform and empower parents to make decisions about their children’s education. Arizona, Florida, and Indiana claimed the top three spots in the 2020 edition of the index. Kentucky came in 42nd with an overall “D” grade in parent power.
How did it manage that? If you’ve been following along these past few years, it should come as no surprise.
Too Few Choices for Kentucky Parents
Most notably, charter schools continue to be one of the most prominent forms of educational choice available to parents, yet Kentucky has none. A controversial charter school bill was passed and signed into law by former Governor Matt Bevin in 2017, but the bill failed to authorize any sort of funding mechanism for charter schools in the state. As a result, charter schools are now sort of in limbo in Kentucky. They’re allowed to operate, but few (if any) could afford to without support from a state funding formula.
But it’s not just the lack of charter schools that limit the options of Kentucky parents. Kentucky doesn’t have any school choice programs that states like Arizona and Florida have seen successes with. Vouchers may as well be a four-letter word in the Bluegrass. Scholarship tax credits were under consideration a couple of years ago in the state legislature, but protests from groups like the Jefferson County Teachers Association quickly shut them down. Education savings accounts have made some noise as of late, but with state budget cuts looming, they may not be a priority for legislators right now. Put simply, school choice has never been an issue that really made much headway in Kentucky. That probably won’t change much in the near future, either.
Some Innovations, but Little Impact on Achievement
One of the categories of the the index is innovation, an area in which Kentucky has had mixed results. For example, while the CER lauds Kentucky for its Districts of Innovation (DOI) program, which was designed to promote more student-centered practices and personalized learning in schools, only 10 of Kentucky’s 173 school districts have actually obtained DOI status. Several of those districts were already engaging in innovative practices before it was ever cool. (A couple of them are still seeing lackluster student performance.)
Kentucky also got high marks for its efforts to advance digital learning. Thanks to all the standards revision work that’s been happening these past few years, Kentucky adopted computer science standards in 2019 and created a Computer Science/Information Technology Academy to upskill high school students’ digital competencies. And while more effort is needed to close the digital divide in rural communities across the state, nearly 100% of Kentucky students have access to high-speed Internet while they’re in school. That takes at least a little pressure off of parents to have high-speed broadband at home. (Though that is still a priority, too.)
But when it comes to urgency around improving student outcomes, there’s little innovation to be seen. Kentucky’s rural school districts struggle to provide teachers with high-quality instructional resources. Parents have too few options if they feel their children aren’t being challenged enough by their course of study. Overall student performance has remained stagnant for decades, and the only real movement to be seen is the growing gap between Kentucky’s haves and have nots. Only 29% of Kentucky’s 8th graders are performing at grade level in math; roughly a third are at grade level in reading. Hard to believe that innovation is our strong suit when achievement continues to stall.
Transparency Offers a Bright Spot
On a positive note, transparency was one area where Kentucky hit a home run. Kentucky introduced a new and improved version of its School Report Card website last year, which includes all of the details you could ever want on your local school: student demographics, test scores, teacher qualifications, student safety details, parental involvement, and plenty more. That information is important for making sense of how well Kentucky schools are doing, and it hasn’t been particularly easy for parents, community members, or even teachers to make heads or tails of until now. Thankfully, the new School Report Card site makes it easier than ever to make sense of that information, and it does a particularly good job of narrowing in on the details that really spell out the achievement gaps between different groups of students as well.
Of course, those details may not seem all that significant to parents and community members left feeling like they don’t have truly have ownership when it comes to their children’s education. That is, after all, what the Parent Power! Index is designed to assess in the first place, and based on Kentucky’s results, it has nowhere to go but up.