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New Ky. School Commissioner Talks Charter Schools, Inequities, Politics

Ky. Commissioner of Education Jason Glass
Kentucky Department of Education
Ky. Commissioner of Education Jason Glass

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · New Leader Of Ky. Schools Shares Thoughts After First Week On the Job

Kentucky’s new commissioner of education Jason Glass has now officially been in office for a week. Glass comes to Kentucky from serving as superintendent for Jeffco Public Schools, a large district near Denver. He’s also served as the top education official for the state of Iowa. He sat down with WFPL News to talk about what it's been like during his first week on the job.

Below is a Q&A based on an interview with Glass. Questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for the department when it comes to supporting schools in this moment?

Glass: Well, right now everything is all COVID all the time, or at least it feels like that. And it seems like every solution that comes forward also brings to new problems that you have to keep working through, or something new, that you have to think about. We've also got budget challenges that we're starting to work through here at the Department, we're looking at an 8% planned cut to state agencies. And the funds that flow into the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) also have some impact on school services and direct services to kids. So we're trying to figure out what that looks like. And ongoing work around anti-racism and equity, thinking about that. And at some point, we'd love to get to a conversation around the future of education and what school could be in the state. But that's a little further down the road as we continue to work through this crisis.

Q: Some superintendents have expressed that they want more clear leadership and direction from KDE, the governor's office, public health departments, and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) to get on the same page. Do you agree that there is more room for clear leadership?

Glass: That answered is variable depending on who you talk to, like most things, when it comes to how we manage this virus as a community and as a Commonwealth, there's not a lot of consensus on what we should do and when we should do it. And so you can talk to some groups of superintendents and/or school leaders and they would say they want clear direction. They want sort of mandates or edicts to come out that provide clarity on exactly what they should do. And then you'll go to the next town over, and you'll get the exact opposite answer from someone else, who doesn't want the state interfering or passing down mandates on or telling them what they should do in their local community. So the approach that the department has taken really is to put out clear guidance. And some some things derived from the authority that the Department of Public Health has to regulate our state when it comes to managing diseases are mandates or requirements. A lot of it is guidance or recommendations. So that's, I think, the right place for this the state Department of Education and all of these other entities to be. We really need to be looking to Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Steven Stack, and the Department of Public Health, for clear guidance on what are the best practices. We're not epidemiologist are experts in disease management — although school leaders have become that over the past several months. We really need to be listening to our experts, the people who have studied this in their professional lives and then following their guidance to the greatest extent we can.

Q: Racial equity was one of your priorities you said you had when you accepted this position. What does that look like specifically?

Glass: There's a lot that the Department of Education and school districts have underway right now. And so the first thing that I want to do is make sure that I am supportive of and continuing the work that's underway. I don't want to disrupt the hard work that already been put in. But, you know, the events that happened this summer really brought to the fore the issues of continuing racism and inequities in society. And that's true in schools as well. We have a part to play in that and thinking about, are we really creating equitable opportunities for all children? We're not going to be an excellent education system as a state until we're an excellent education system and create opportunities for every child, especially our Black  and brown kids. So we've got work to do around examining systemic bias or racism that may exist in school systems and within our practices as a state. That can be looking at different policies or practices that result in different outcomes for students that we've got to think more closely about, and can we change those. So that'll be a major focus of mine and of the department's going going forward. Again, there's already good work underway. We've got more work to do.

Q: Can you talk more specifically? What do you see working, and what do you think needs improvement?

Glass: Well, the Kentucky Department of Education has already put out implicit bias and trainings that are available to school districts. I think in addition to that, would be efforts focused on the recruitment of minority educators. There's again already work underway in that regard. But the question should be, how can we do that at scale? Because we're scratching the surface compared to the magnitude or impact that we need to have. Also supporting districts and looking at their practices and policies. One example that comes to mind is if we look at the numbers of students who are identified for special education, they're disproportionately Black and brown in Kentucky, and really all across the country. It's not an uncommon outcome. And if we look at the number of students that are identified for gifted and talented, we under-identify Black and brown students. So do we believe that Black and brown kids are less gifted and more disabled than their white and Asian peers? Of course not. But we have a system that's yielding that kind of outcome in terms of identification and in terms of the services that are provided. So I think that's an area for us to look at our policies and our practices in terms of identification, and I think can we do better.

Q: The Kentucky General Assembly is going to meet in January. When you were at the Department of Education in Iowa you worked with the legislature to create some pretty major policy changes to the teacher profession. Do you have plans for any major changes to the teaching profession here in Kentucky?

Glass: I think the first thing that I'm going to work on in Kentucky is doing a lot of listening. So that's really a lesson that I learned in Iowa the first year that I was the chief state school officer. We put forth this big education reform plan the very first year, out of the gate, and it just landed like a lead balloon. And the reason was that we didn't take the time to understand the context, and think about what was right for that state. Now, I think we learned our lesson and came back a year-and-a-half later, with a much better plan that passed unanimously, with support from both parties, from the business community and from the education community. So I think that's a lesson that I bring to Kentucky, is that we need to slow down and make sure that whatever policies that we put in place are the right ones. So that's work that I'll do over this first year is really a lot of listening and understanding to try to put together going forward. I think there will be a press for, what can we do from a legislative or a policy standpoint to raise the performance and experience for students across the state? But that needs to be built based on what what's right for Kentucky.

Q: Do you believe there is a role for charter schools in Kentucky?

Glass: I've had the experience to work with charter schools in Iowa and in Colorado. In fact, the district that I just left had 15 charter schools, and I worked to support them. And the reason for that is, if you move beyond the ideology of them, I always felt like those schools are serving kids in my community, and I wanted them to succeed because of that. And so I treated them just like any other school and thought, 'how can I help this school be successful?' The charter school structure is really just a different governance approach. It moves the control and authority of the school away from the school district into a more independent body. And the charter is a contract that establishes the boundaries of what that independent body can do. I think that charter schools have brought innovative approaches, a lot of more focused or mission-specific schools have come into being in states that have had charter schools. At the same time, I think, they're a mixed bag. Their results are sort of variable from charter school to charter school. And they have increased inequities. So we have seen charter schools that have been created purely for the purpose of getting affluent white families a place to concentrate their students. So that exacerbates the inequity. And proliferating a bunch of new schools is not a very efficient strategy from a cost standpoint. So I think those are all things that we have to consider as well. I think the biggest question for the state is, 'how, from a state policy level, how do we raise the performance and experience for students across the state?' I have not seen evidence that charter schools — just the mere presence of them — does that. So while I think they may have a place — Kentucky has a law that allows them to come into being — I'm not convinced that that is going to be the game-changer that really changes the student experience, because fundamentally it's just a  governance or structure change.

Q: Kentucky has had, for lack of a better word, a lot of drama at the state level when it comes to education. The governor has ousted the school board, which ousted the previous commissioner of education. How do you plan to deal with the level of upheaval that tends to happen in the education world here?

Kentucky is not unique in that there has been politics and upheaval at the state board, at the state agency, with the state chief of schools role, and with the legislature. So that I would say, based on my experience working in numerous other states, that's the norm. It's a political job. This is a political role. So we have to work hard to remove the politics from the decisions and try to get focus back on what's in the best interest of our kids and their future — which really should be, and is, a nonpartisan question. Everybody loves their kids. Everybody wants the schools of the state to be quality and be great. We've got some different ideas from party to party, from region to region, from person to person around what that looks like and and how we do that. But fundamentally, the goal is the same. So that's where I'll keep bringing us back to. And I think other commissioners — going back to Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Lewis — I've talked with both of them. They're good people and good educators. And they had that interest at heart. And so I think we have to keep coming back to that. But I don't come in with any illusions this won't be a tough and political role. I knew that when I took the job.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.