The new leader of the Kentucky Department of Education laid out his priorities on Wednesday, including the creation of charter schools, improving student achievement and taking over Louisville’s public school system.
Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis started his job in late April after the previous commissioner was forced out during a leadership shakeup.
Lewis said that the state shouldn’t award high school diplomas to students who can’t read at an eighth grade level.
“I believe it is unethical and immoral to hand kids a diploma that we know does not get them anything,” Lewis said.
Wednesday was the first time Lewis appeared before the Kentucky Board of Education since he was hired as commissioner. He previously served on the Charter Schools Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to the board about charter school policy.
Last month, Lewis recommended that the state take over the management of Jefferson County Public Schools, releasing an audit of the district that detailed problems with instruction, restraint and seclusion of students and a lack of support for low-performing students and schools.
The JCPS school board appealed the recommendation. Lewis said he welcomes the opportunity to make the case for a state takeover during a public hearing later this month.
“I made that recommendation to you because I believe there is no other route to ensuring that the children of Jefferson County, particularly the most vulnerable children in Jefferson County are protected, are served well, and adults are held accountable for doing so,” Lewis said.
“I made that recommendation because I believe there is no other way to ensure that those things happen in that district.”
Under the proposed takeover, Lewis says that he would leave JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio in charge of day-to-day management of the district, but require weekly reports to state officials.
The locally-elected school board would be relegated to an advisory role under Lewis’ plan.
During a public comment period, parent and 15th district PTA president Autumn Neagle begged the board to not approve a takeover.
“Our district has been changing. We changed our board, we changed our superintendent,” Neagle said. “That was our voice that did that. And now you’re saying our voice doesn’t matter?”
Lewis also said he would continue to push to open up charter schools, which he said would help low-income urban communities.
“Why would we not consider a tool […]that has proven to be effective with the very population of students that we can’t seem to get a handle on being able to serve well?” Lewis said.
Though last year state lawmakers passed a charter schools bill and temporary funding system for the institutions, the legislature did not pass a new funding plan during this year’s session.