Opinion: Put 'Public' Back in 'Public Education'
By Jim Waters
LEXINGTON - Critics jumping at opportunities to stamp an "anti-public education" label on school choice supporters also unwittingly advocate for something different from a truly public education by defending Kentucky's antiquated School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) approach as the holy grail of school governance.

Actually, we could have a debate around this question: Are Kentucky's SBDM-governed schools really "public?"

Education Week recently carried an article by University of Cincinnati professor Sarah Stitzlein listing "five responsibilities schools must meet to truly be called 'public.'"

Her third criterion: "They should be responsive to the public, enabling community members to vote out officials or change school policies through meaningful and viable avenues like elections, referendums, and open school meetings."

Kentucky's SBDM policy clearly violates the professor's third standard by denying citizens the ability to vote out their school's officials, change school policies or even have convenient access to council meetings.

Rank-and-file citizens have no say in the membership of SBDM councils, as current law requires that a majority of the bodies be comprised of teachers.

Since parents have only a minority voice, the councils have complete control over crucial areas of curriculum, school staffing and how tax dollars get spent.

Thus, House members really interested in putting the "public" back in public schools should closely consider reforms included in Senate Bill 3 passed by the Kentucky Senate on the fourth day of this year's legislative session – which primary sponsor Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, has worked on for four years.

SB 3 returns "public" to public schools by: 

  • Re-empowering superintendents to make final decisions regarding the hiring of principals.
  • Allowing parents, principals and superintendents a process by which to appeal SBDM decisions to the locally elected school board.

These policies fix significant problems that have troubled educators and some lawmakers from the beginning days of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), which created the SBDM approach.

One troubling revelation is that very liberal politicians – who held a solid political majority in the legislature when KERA passed in 1990 – "were discussing eliminating school boards entirely," according to new Northern Kentucky Rep. Ed Massey, who served 21 years on the Boone County Schools board and is a past president of both the state and national school boards associations.

"Part of that compromise was that they did the site-based councils," Massey, R-Hebron, added in his comments before the legislature's interim Joint Education Committee in August 2017.

Yet, as Massey noted, it's the elected board – not SBDM councils – who ultimately are responsible to taxpayers.

How can any conscientious educator advocating for a truly public education system support SBDM councils, which usurp the authority of superintendents and school boards and keep parents in the minority?

Even Lucy Waterbury from Save Our Schools, a generally SBDM-supportive group, indicated at the interim education committee's meeting in November: "We need an equalization of parents."

Some legislators apparently are concerned that reforming SBDM policy would encourage the return of the good ol' days of nepotism, where superintendents awarded plum positions to family members and friends.

Public control of education, however, isn't achieved by weakening a locally elected board's authority or limiting parents' voices.

Rather, true public education occurs by giving locally elected boards proper authority and voters holding board members accountable at the ballot box.

Right now, school accountability is largely a mirage in Kentucky.

Local boards and their chosen school expert, the superintendent, can only sit back and fume when SBDM councils make bad decisions about curriculum, school staffing and spending.

This undemocratic situation means voters really can't hold board members accountable.

The current SBDM approach essentially disenfranchises parents, citizens and taxpayers, who only get to pay, but really have no say.

That, even Professor Stitzlein would have to agree, is not "public education." 

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky's free-market think tank. Read previous columns at He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.

Published 02:30 PM, Sunday Feb. 17, 2019
Updated 06:21 PM, Monday Feb. 18, 2019

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