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July 31, 2007

Bluegrass Beacon: More than a Penney for her thoughts

Education Commissioner Barbara Erwin finally saw the light.It took a police investigation into her recent gig as superintendent in St. Charles, Ill., for Erwin to accept retirement and for Kentucky Board of Education chairman Keith Travis to admit her hiring “wasn’t in our best interest.” It wasn’t in our children’s best interest either, sir. Erwin removed all doubt that she wasn’t the right person for the job when she took a parting shot blaming the media for her demise rather than accepting personal responsibility for her actions. But the media didn’t trick-up Erwin’s resume. It didn’t cause a personnel file to turn up missing in St. Charles, which instigated the police investigation. It didn’t make Erwin claim 85 sick days a year at taxpayers’ expense. Now, the board search starts over. And Travis said he wants a Kentucky educator to fill the post. Then why didn’t the board hire Penney Sanders, who served as the first director of Kentucky’s Office of Education Accountability from 1991 to 1997?Sanders brought more than 25 years of experience in the commonwealth’s education system when applying during the first episode of “Commissioner Chaos.” Yet the inept search firm hired by the KBE didn’t even bother to send the Harrodsburg native a letter thanking her for applying. It wasn’t like Ray and Associates of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, couldn’t afford the stamp. That firm got $50,000 from taxpayers; Kentucky got Erwin. It both infuriates and saddens me that an educator with Sanders’ experience and talent would be ignored. I hope she applies again. Better yet, Travis and the board members should treat her with the professional respect she deserves and just offer her an interview. Even if they don’t, you won’t find Sanders slowing down. She’s working with a group of retired educators to improve children’s education around the country, including at a small elementary school in Florida attended by 350 children from mostly minority and low-income families. The school received a “D” in Florida’s grading system for the past two years but was given a “B” this year, thanks to the help of these highly skilled educators.“It’s taken a lot of work,” Sanders said. “The principal had to shift her focus from an administrative to an instructional focus. She became very focused.” That’s the kind of focus Kentucky needs to meet requirements established by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Travis and his board buddies gasped when they learned during their April meeting that only 37 percent of Kentucky’s schools remain on track to reach proficiency by 2014. So, Mr. Travis, “F-O-C-U-S” on this: More than 60 percent of our state’s public schools won’t meet their goals in seven years.Meanwhile, I predict most of the candidates considered for the top education job will be passionate defenders of the status quo. They’ll think, act and react “safely.”But Kentucky can’t afford this crossing-guard mentality when it faces a bloated education bureaucracy, failing test scores and a rapidly approaching 2014 deadline. That’s why the board should seek out Sanders — who worked for 17 years in Jefferson County, the state’s largest district — and ask her to help them.“I just didn’t fit the central-office mold very well,” she told me. “My passion has always been making sure every child makes progress every year.” That passion results in Sanders supporting more emphasis on getting elementary school students to read and do mathematics at grade level. “When students can read, the doors open for social studies and history,” she said. “When students can do math, the doors open for science.” That’s what I really like about Sanders — her clarity and passion. No mumbo jumbo. No spinning. No painting a pretty picture with failure at its core. She should have been Kentucky’s education commissioner the first time around. And she’s the right choice now.   Jim Waters is the director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. You can read previously published columns at www.bipps.org. Contact him at jwaters@bipps.org