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Despite that real spending on public education has doubled during the past 25 years, there remains an alarming number of bureaucrats and union bosses who propagandize that Kentucky is about to return to the days of the one-room schoolhouse both in terms of funding and academic reform.
Billy Harper, who recently completed a term on the state Board of Education, doesn’t drink that Kool-Aid.
Harper, who owns Harper Industries — a prosperous Paducah-based construction company — was the board’s only representative from the business community for the past four years. Gov. Steve Beshear recently refused to reappoint him to another term.
Beshear by rote answers every question about improving education with babble about needing more money and offering politically safe – but unproven – ideas, like forcing uninterested students to remain in school until they are 18 years old.
In contrast, Harper’s views are frank and thoughtful.
It’s refreshing to hear a business owner talk about Kentucky’s education policy in terms that go beyond the usual prattle.
When Harper recently sat down with me to discuss his ideas about improving Kentucky public schools, it didn’t take long to figure out he believes principals and teachers play critical roles in education reform.
“It used to be a principal could let the teacher go in the room and lock the door and do whatever they do,” Harper explained. “Now he’s got to be there to make sure they’re teaching the right things in the right way.”
He believes one way of retaining great teachers while weeding out those who need to find other professions is by basing their compensation on performance rather than seniority alone.
While he hopes Kentucky moves toward merit-based pay “in the next few years,” he says getting the education establishment’s support will be a “slow and hard process.”
The idea of evaluating teachers based on the academic progress made by their students, including using test scores, remains controversial in the education community. Still, Harper says there’s no way around the fact productivity – and results – matter.
“You can be busy, but not producing things,” he said. “That’s going to be a critical part of (education reform) as well. When teachers truly are not performing and the students aren’t benefiting, there needs to be an efficient way to move on.”
While Kentucky’s education labor bosses – who spent $100,000 lobbying last year – despise any attempt to rid our education system of the scourge of failing teachers, Harper said it must be done.
Not only does having a failing teacher set children back academically, it’s costly. The average price for terminating a teacher for underperformance is a whopping $55,000, he said.
Given such high costs of ensuring classrooms aren’t occupied by inept faculty, Harper notes that “what usually ends up happening – they are pushed off to covering a department staff job somewhere, so it makes us more inefficient.”
While “some teachers are fearful of” enhanced evaluation policies, Harper said he has “no doubt that once we get there,” the hardworking, conscientious instructors in Kentucky schools – of which he notes there are many – ultimately will embrace and support the idea.
Harper’s optimism about our state’s education future is tempered with concern we won’t keep working on the tough issues until they are resolved.
“The worst thing we did with KERA (the Kentucky Education Reform Act) is that we passed that and said ‘we fixed schools,’ and everybody went off to do other things. The key now is for us to stay at the table and keep getting better,” he said.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.