By Brad Hughes
Director of Member Support Services
If you recall the TV program, Hee Haw, you probably remember the sketch that usually featured Roy Clark, Gordie Tapp, Grandpa Jones and Archie Campbell singing this mournful line, “Gloom, despair and agony on me.”
That assessment pretty well captured the mood in Frankfort the first week of the 2012 General Assembly, in which Gov. Steve Beshear and the state’s 138 legislators will have to craft a two-year budget. Reporters covering the session’s opening days could have used the Hee Haw lyric as a headline.
One positive during that week came when more than 100 public education advocates fairly filled the Capitol Rotunda to hear leaders of seven pro-K-12 school groups kick off the public campaign of the Kentucky Education Action Team. KEAT is asking the governor and the legislature to restore an estimated $300 million that was cut in state elementary and secondary school funding over the past four years.
KEAT was created in late 2011 by leaders of KSBA, Kentucky Association of School Administrators, Kentucky Association of School Councils, Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, Kentucky Education Association, Kentucky Parent Teacher Association and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. While these groups already would be called public education advocates, their differences on a variety of issues makes using the term “historic” to describe the coalition more than just hype.
In the audience I spotted about 20 superintendents, from the state’s largest – Jefferson County, Fayette County and Boone County – to several small county and independent systems. The same demographic was true for eight to 10 school board members who shared standing-room space with co-op directors, teachers, parents, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and several KDE staffers and members of the Kentucky Board of Education, led by Chairman David Karem and Vice Chairman Roger Marcum.
The news conference attracted reporters from eight media outlets, contributing to coverage that was still showing up in local newspapers several days after the event.
Great launch. But I didn’t hear any of the press corps asking the critical question: “What’s next?”
From here, where, who?
KEAT, through the efforts of Prichard Committee number-cruncher Susan Perkins Weston, provided local school leaders with vital data on reduced state funding from FY 2007-09 through FY 2011-12. (See chart.)
This data ought to be featured in a school board meeting in every district as long as the legislature is working on the budget. Indeed, when reporters called for a reaction to the KEAT announcement, several superintendents were ready with local specifics on the impact of the cuts.
Those numbers should provide primary content for correspondence to legislators and newspaper letters to the editor. They should be talking points for those Saturday morning breakfasts with senators and representatives when they come home for the weekend. They’re worth a set of bullet points on district websites, parent and staff newsletters and any other resources in our schools’ communications toolkits.
But the larger issue remains: Will Kentucky’s tens of thousands of teachers and administrators and board, council and PTA members leave it up to a few dozen mostly Frankfort-based organizational representatives to carry the message of the classroom resource needs to the state’s decision makers?
The Last Word
Richard Day, who moderates the Internet blog, Kentucky School News and Commentary, reacted to the KEAT kickoff with a healthy dose of skepticism and reality.
“If there’s sabre-rattling to be done, it helps if the legislature actually believes there’s a real threat of political action...and any lack of resolve will leave today’s announcement as a footnote in history. KEAT’s mission is only to ‘persuade the Kentucky General Assembly, parents and the public.’ Is this Phase One? Is there more to come? While I certainly agree with the fact that Kentucky’s educational progress is truly threatened by inadequate funding, it remains to be seen whether this is an historic event. So far, it’s only a press conference.”
For KEAT’s work to come anywhere close to a KERA-like impact on public education in Kentucky, the resolve Day spoke of must be heard in Frankfort…but it can’t come just from Frankfort. Legislators and the governor must hear – regularly – from all 174 districts and 1,221 schools on the effects of past and newly proposed funding cuts on learning by the state’s 645,000 public school students.
And that’s a message worth getting out.