In Conversation With… features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate. This month’s installment features interviews with both House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort), a retired educator, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green), who manages a Christian radio station. The focus is the 2014 session of the General Assembly, which convenes in January. Click here for the article with Rep. Grahman.
Q: As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, what are your top priorities for this legislative session?
A: Committee members have been working to pull together all the different concerns that people have in regard to education. As the chair of the Senate Education Committee, my first and foremost priority is funding. Even though we have maintained funding at a certain level, there have been cuts – some we didn’t even realize would be happening. I was at a (Green River Regional Educational Cooperative) meeting last year (2012) when we learned of a $50 million cut overall that we weren’t expecting – that was pretty serious. As chair of the education committee, I feel that it is my job to be an advocate for any growth in budget that we can give back to K-12 and higher education.
Q: Beyond the budget, what other priorities do you have?
A: Career/technical education is a real priority for me. Last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put out the statistic that 3 million jobs go unfilled every year because our people do not have the skills to adequately fulfill the responsibilities for those jobs.
We need to be providing more opportunities for students to take computer science classes – I am not talking about just teaching students to be computer literate and to use software, but providing more programs through which students learn how to write code and learn advanced computer skills. The trend across the United States is a decline in the number of people taking these types of classes.
We push lots of students toward college, but the majority of the jobs that are going to be produced over the next decade are going to be jobs that require only two-year degrees or certificates or apprenticeships. We have to have at least an equal emphasis on career training. I am really, really passionate about seeing that our kids are able to be successful and make a livable wage.
I listened to four local students who were graduating from high school with welding certificates when they spoke at a recent P-16 conference. Those kids can make $40,000 to $60,000 a year right out of high school. Today, it would take most college graduates a long time to make that kind of money. We have pushed college for everyone. As a result, we now have a generation of trade and technical careers, advanced manufacturing, and all of those areas that is lost. So, you could say my second priority would be these kinds of classes and, of course, access to technology.
Q: What are other priorities?
A: A third priority is what I have seen that is so successful with Stephen Covey’s The Leader in Me process. It is being used in my area and in several districts around the state. About three years ago, the superintendents in the Warren County and Bowling Green Independent school districts got together with our chamber of commerce and learned about the success of The Leader in Me, based on (Covey’s book) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It isn’t as much a curriculum as a culture change – it is the soft skills that are missing in our graduates. One of the things business leaders tell me is that the workforce doesn’t have soft skills anymore.
It is a public-private partnership. I am convinced that utilizing The Leader in Me will do more to change the workforce in Kentucky than anything else we are doing.
Q: What about the funding issue legislators will face in this session? Can we hope to see the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky funding restored to the 2008-09 amount of $3,866 per student?
A: We are having discussions around funding. Funding happens in one of three ways: It is based on average daily attendance (on which the current SEEK formula is based), on enrollment or on membership. I believe we are probably in a time when we need to have a conversation around basing funding on membership as well as on accountability factors such as the percentage of students who are college and career ready, graduation rates, accountability, and things like that. These are just conversations we are starting to have. I don’t anticipate us chairing any legislation at this time, but I think that we will start addressing this. If you look at the membership model, I think it could address some inequities and lack of funding and provide more funding for K-12.
Q: What other issues do you expect to be discussing?
A: Another issue of concern that I think will come up is tenure reform and tribunal reform. I have had some conversations with some of the superintendents and KSBA about those issues. A tribunal is not used very often and when it is used, most of the decisions are overturned. We will probably see another bill regarding that.
Superintendents and KSBA are not in favor of charter schools, but I think that the issue will come up again. The last time it was addressed was to use it as an alternative for turning around failing schools – I don’t know if that is the way a proposal would be structured this time, but that was the approach for charter schools last time. I anticipate that will be back this year.
There seems to be questions among a lot of legislators with backlash coming now regarding Common Core and the science standards. I know there will be a huge discussion about what we prescribed in Senate Bill 1 and whether or not what we were asking for is taking place. What about backlash among groups who have contacted us? Do we need to do anything in regard to that? Do we need to have any clarification? There are questions out there among our legislators. I don’t know if they are going to move on anything, but these discussions are going to happen.
Q: What about Flexible Focus Funds (allocations for professional development, Extended School Services (ESS), preschool, textbooks, and safe schools) that have dropped significantly? And technology dollars?
A: We know that ESS is very valuable so it would be my hope that some of those funds could be restored. We know that funding for school safety has been cut and that is a major issue. Everybody is asking for more money and, so from my perspective, it is a priority for me to look at all areas and try to be an advocate for those areas–especially in technology.
Q: How important is it for districts to become more innovative?
A: There are so many fantastic things out there that we have to find ways in which we can partner with community resources. All the innovation that I see happening in education doesn’t happen as a result of legislators mandating from the top. It comes from the grassroots. It comes from the district level.
I would like to see us address the Districts of Innovation. My question is that if this is working so well for people to be able to go out and be innovative – in some cases doing what they already are doing – why can’t we provide more freedom to our districts? In my opinion, schools need to have more freedom to innovate.