Author Archives: Alex Spurrier

Media: “Give Louisville’s Low-Income Families the Same School Choice the Wealthy Have” in the Courier-Journal

Louisville is a wonderful city, and I’m proud to call it home, but like many other American cities, your child’s educational opportunities depend heavily on your income level. It doesn’t have to be this way: charter schools and scholarship tax credit programs are two policy mechanisms that can help level the educational playing field.

My op-ed out today in the Louisville Courier-Journal focuses on the need for Kentucky’s policymakers to empower lower-income parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child — just like the wealthy already do:

All families deserve to choose the best educational path for their children, but right now in Louisville, that right is reserved only for the wealthy.

Families with financial means who are unhappy with Jefferson County Public Schools have several options. They can move to nearby Oldham, Shelby or Bullitt counties, as thousands have done since the early 1990s, taking a significant amount of taxable wealth with them. Or they can enroll their children in one of the area’s many private schools, as thousands per year also do. Low-income families, meanwhile, are essentially asked to wait and hope that the school system improves.

Read my full op-ed here, and check out Bellwether’s other writing on school choice issues here.

Kentucky Teachers Just Elected a New Governor — But His Education Policies Might Not Win

Teachers in Kentucky are feelin’ good as hell. Their organizing efforts helped a Democrat — current Attorney General Andy Beshear — unseat the nation’s most unpopular governor in a state that Donald Trump carried by 30 points in 2016. While current Governor Matt Bevin requested a recanvass, educators are enjoying the catharsis of their success, and hoping for a pay raise, higher levels of state funding for K-12 education, and better outcomes for their students. 

photo of Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear visiting a school in the state

Photo of Beshear via his Instagram

Unfortunately, the actual impact of this election on students in Kentucky will be minimal unless Governor-elect Beshear pursues bipartisan cooperation on education issues, which will be a challenge as he works with a Republican-dominated legislature. 

Beshear has promised an ambitious and expensive education policy agenda that includes reducing class sizes and giving a $2,000 pay raise to every teacher. But it’s very likely that in 2020, down ballot voting in Kentucky will remain ruby red and stymie Beshear’s education proposals. Additionally, Kentucky’s legislature will be able to override any Beshear vetoes with a simple majority, as they did several times under Bevin.

We can expect Governor-elect Beshear to make splashy personnel moves, but they may have only limited impact on students. While Beshear can appoint four members to the State Board of Education in 2020, he’s vowed to use a precedent set by Governor Bevin to replace the entire board on day one of his administration, with the hopes that they fire the current Commissioner of Education on day two. This action is sure to provoke a legal challenge by the man replacing him as Attorney General, Daniel Cameron.  Continue reading

Will Denver’s School Board Change Direction on Tuesday?

In Hamilton, George Washington tells the title character: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.” But the experience of school system leaders is sometimes the inverse: implementing policies that yield tangible improvements is one thing, but winning support at the ballot box can be more difficult. Even when reforms deliver significant improvements in student outcomes, it’s no guarantee that those policies — or the leaders who support them — will withstand the next election.

Denver is a clear example of this dynamic. While 2019 is considered an “off year” for federal elections, Denver’s school board race could have a major impact on the future of the city’s reform efforts.

The work to transform Denver’s school system began in earnest in 2005, when four-year graduation rates were a dismal 39 percent. After a decade of consistent improvement, the four-year graduation rate rose to 69 percent by 2017, with achievement scores also showing impressive growth. Two leaders responsible for sparking this transformation have since left their positions: Superintendent Michael Bennet was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2009 and won a full term in 2010, and former mayor John Hickenlooper was elected governor in 2010 and is seeking Colorado’s other senate seat in 2020.

While Denver’s school board continued to push for improvement in student outcomes after these leaders moved on, elections in 2017 weakened that consensus. And the balance of control on Denver’s school board may be “flipped” away from the reform-inclined majority on Tuesday. There are three seats up for grabs, with three candidates vying for each seat, none of whom are incumbents.

One of the key underlying themes of the race is a sense that for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities. While Denver officials are working to improve community engagement efforts, building those relationships may be even more critical in the coming years. Projections show a potential enrollment decline in Denver’s future, which may lead to the painful prospect of school consolidations or closures.

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Why Do So Few Kids Walk or Bike to School in My State?

When I was a teacher in Connecticut, most of my students walked to school. I taught just a few blocks from downtown, so that made walking a pretty reasonable option. However, that wasn’t the norm in the rest of New England, and it would be really exceptional in my current home state of Kentucky. In fact, only 3% of students walk or bike to school in the “East South Central” states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Walking and biking to school varies by region.

Nationally, about 10% of students walk or bike to school every day, but actual likelihood of walking to school varies significantly by region. Why are students in my region ranked lowest in the country in active forms of transportation, and what are the “Pacific” states of California, Oregon, and Washington, with the highest rates of students walking or biking to school, doing that we aren’t?

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What Is a School District Chief Innovation Officer? A Q&A With Margo Roen and David Saenz

Through innovation, organizations can adapt and improve their operations, but in large, complex school districts, who actually defines and pushes innovative efforts forward? 

School districts across the country are increasingly appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) or similar role to drive transformation in their school systems. What do these leaders actually do? What should superintendents consider before adding a CIO to their leadership team? 

In order to answer these questions, I reached out to Margo Roen, the Principal of Innovative Systems & Schools at Education First, and David Saenz, Senior Officer in Fort Worth (TX) Independent School District’s Office of Innovation and Transformation. (Fort Worth Independent School District is part of Texas’ System of Great Schools Network, which Margo supports, and is a current Bellwether client.)

headshots of Margo Roen, Education First, and David Saenz, Forth Worth Independent School District

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What is a Chief Innovation Officer? What are the main responsibilities and skills?

Margo Roen: CIOs (or comparable roles) are fundamentally focused on creating more high-quality, best-fit schools for the students they serve, but this can look really different across districts depending on local needs.

CIO’s typically: 1) oversee an annual cycle for using data to assess their district’s strengths and gaps; 2) actively look for options to fill those gaps through internal capacity-building or external partnerships; and 3) formalize these strategic partnerships through performance contracts that clearly lay out expectations, autonomies, and supports for partners. 

David Saenz: The work of a CIO is all about change management. They need the ability to manage various projects at once while also being able to communicate effectively with internal and external partners and stakeholders. A CIO needs to have a working knowledge of most of the major areas of a school district: school management, school finance, personnel management, operations, and grant development.

A diverse array of districts have created CIO roles in the last decade or so. How has the role evolved, if at all, since then? Continue reading