In Conversation With ... Jack Conway - full transcript

In Conversation With ... Jack Conway - full transcript

In Conversation With ... Jack Conway - full transcript

Gubernatorial candidate on Kentucky education issues
Kentucky School Advocate
October 2015
 
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 is devoted to Kentucky’s candidates for governor, Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin, and their views on K-12 education issues.
 
The following is the unedited transcript of the Kentucky School Advocate’s interview with Jack Conway. To read the version, edited for space, that appeared in the magazine, click here.

Q: What would your administration’s priorities be for elementary and secondary education?

A:
My administration’s priority for elementary and secondary education: First, let’s get the best governance possible at the state board of education, obviously. We’re bringing in a new commissioner, and I want to make certain we have a responsive system of governance possible. Secondly, as the Beshear administration comes to a close, they have made a priority of preserving SEEK funding. I think that’s been a good thing, but many other areas have been cut and as we get into an environment where they’re projecting a $219 million surplus for next fiscal year, can we go back and shore up some of those areas that have been cut? And then thirdly, my priority would be let’s keep a curriculum and testing in place and make certain that what we are delivering at the end of the day are high school students who are college and career ready.

Q: You say can we shore up some of those areas that have been cut – specifically, what areas would you be interested in shoring up?

A:
Teacher pay raises and technology in schools are two areas that probably suffered quite a bit during the economic downturn and those are two of the areas I would want to examine.

Q: You mentioned keeping the curriculum and the testing in place to be sure students are college and career ready. What is your opinion of the current system of assessing students in Kentucky?

A:
I think it’s appropriate that we assess students. I think on balance, the educational reform system that we’ve had in place more than 25 years has been on balance a good thing. I do get concerned when I talk to teachers that feel like they’re teaching to a test and that we’re overtesting students. So I want to make sure that whatever testing and accountability system we have in place one, is appropriate and doesn’t overtest and take away from classroom instruction. And then secondly, I want to make sure that we’re comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Sometimes it’s important to look at the percentage of improvement as opposed to raw test scores. I want to make certain we keep the system in place going forward that does that, because the measure of how students are moving is important because the socioeconomic environment that these students come from is an important thing to consider when you consider a starting point for assessment.

And then the other point I would make is there’s a lot of rhetoric out there about the Common Core and a lot of it is misinformation and my opponent, I think, has been dealing in misinformation when it comes to Common Core. I’m for as much local control as we can have. If we have something in our curriculum that’s not working, local officials, school boards ought to have the ability to look at that and change some things. What Common Core was and is, was an effort by the states to come up with a new curriculum that’s focused on college and career readiness. And it was started by the governors; it wasn’t this federal overreach into education that it’s made out to be. Now, later on the federal government came in and tied some incentive funding to it, but the fact of the matter is, it was a bottom-up, state-level approach. And over the last six or seven years we’ve seen our scores from college and career readiness go from 31 percent of our students to 54 percent. That’s significant progress, and I don’t want to see that thrown out the window based on baseless partisan rhetoric.

Q: You mentioned the SEEK basic funding formula earlier – do you feel the formula itself is adequate or do you feel like it needs to be tweaked?

A:
Adequate’s not a very strong word. It’s probably adequate, as it is right now. Is it optimal? Perhaps not. Do we need to think about all the costs of transporting a child? And other factors you could put in to potentially enhance the SEEK formula – perhaps. I think it’s adequate now; I wouldn’t call it optimal. I don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver; I mean, we still do have a very tight budget situation and we’re going to have to set priorities and the only thing I would say is that as attorney general, I have done more with less. We have civil collections up over 600 percent in my office; we’ve returned $300 million to the state treasury. For every dollar the General Assembly has given me, I’ve returned more to the state treasury and we’ve done that while cutting our office’s budget by 40 percent. So I have significant experience in getting into a budget and seeing what’s working and what’s not, where we can cut and where we can reprioritize.

So when it comes to an issue like SEEK funding, I don’t want to tell your membership that we can afford everything, because we can’t. But as governor I do know how important our educational system is. Between job creation and education, those are two of the most important things a governor can do and influence. And I want to make certain that within the constraints of the budget, we’re doing everything we can to prioritize education.

Q: What are your ideas for shoring up the Teachers’ Retirement System, both in the short-term and also long-term?

A:
In the short term, we are going to have to make the payments to keep the fund solvent. What the long term solution is, I’m eagerly awaiting the outcomes and the recommendations of this task force that’s been put together – they’re supposed to deliver recommendations on how to shore up the KTRS, I believe in November or December. And then once I receive those as the next governor, I’ll decide where we can act and what we can do. But I want to make this assurance to our teachers and that is that they are going to have their full benefit and state government will figure out a way to fund it. It’s so important. I think when teachers are recruited, having the retirement they have is a very, very important recruiting tool. And we also have to keep in mind that teachers don’t participate in the Social Security program so it’s doubly important that we protect their retirement.

Q: Now you mentioned that you’re waiting on the task force for some kind of long-term recommendations and you said you wanted to make sure the payments are made now to keep the fund solvent. How do you make those payments short-term? Are you in favor of the bond issue or do you have some other idea?

A:
If the bond issue were limited, if it were limited to a short period of time. I thought that the bond issue that was proposed the last session was far too large. As a general rule, I get very concerned about the proposition of pension obligation bonds because what happens there is the state is making a gamble with taxpayer money. And they’re betting that their investment returns will outpace the cost of borrowing the money. And if that doesn’t happen, you dig an even deeper hole. And that’s what happened to municipalities like Stockton, California, and others actually went bankrupt. Illinois has had huge problems. If it’s a short term and a manageable amount of money, I would be willing to consider that. As a long-term solution to just bond the entire obligation, I’m not for that. We’re going to have to reprioritize our budget, we’re going to have to cut some areas and maybe by cutting create some funding streams that go toward teachers’ retirement. No, I’m not in favor of bonding the entire obligation.

Q: You recently talked about charter schools and said you favor charter schools that don’t take money from public schools and allow for innovation and freedom from bureaucracy. How does this differ from what we currently have in the Districts of Innovation program?

A:
I look at the charter school issue and I kind of see it as an issue of labels. For example, I reside in Jefferson County and I look at DuPont Manual (High School) and I think, OK, that may be a charter school – they call it a magnet school but students have to track in and then apply to get in. And so I think Districts of Innovation is a good tool for better achievement in our respective school districts. And separate and apart from the magnet-type programs, if you wanted to take a school and have some experiments with it, so long as it was done in a transparent fashion, if local educators feel like they need to throw off some of the shackles of bureaucracy and try to be innovative, I’m all for that, as long as it’s transparent and as long as the public knows what they are doing and that we’re not siphoning money from public education. Public education budgets are tight enough as it is without siphoning money off of them.

One of my experiences as attorney general that I think has been very illuminating in this context is what I ended up doing on the for-profit colleges. I was the leader of a 30-state coalition that examined some, but not all, of the for-profit colleges. We have a lot of these for-profit colleges that were more interested in getting their hands on federal student loan money than they are in actually educating people and placing them in jobs. And what I don’t like when I look at charter schools is when you have for-profit companies come in and try to convince the state or school district that they can run a school more efficiently. And then oftentimes what you see is some of the public dollars get siphoned off for profit; you have a charter school that cherry picks its students and leaves some of the students in an education underclass. I don’t like that.

Your question was very interesting – what’s different from innovation districts? I think they’re very similar. My view of a charter school is if you want to innovate, throw off the shackles of bureaucracy, if you want to experiment with something to try to make a situation better, I’m all for that. Just don’t siphon off public dollars in the process, don’t allow for profit companies to come in and take away our public dollars. I sort of view the charter school issue as all about labeling: what one is and what one isn’t. And the devil is always in the details when it comes to charter schools.

Q: You mentioned transparency: would you favor authorization of a charter school by the local board of education or by a statewide agency?

A:
I think education tends to work best at the local level, but I think given the amount of funding that comes from the state into public education, I would want to see some sort of state oversight or approval of what was developed at the local level.

Q: Career and technical education has been getting a lot of attention lately. Is this going to be a focus for your administration?

A:
Yes, it’ll be one of the top three or four focuses of my administration. We have a skills gap in this state. It’s palpable; it’s one of the things I hear most about as I go around the state. I went on a jobs tour this summer and I remember going into a tool and dye shop in Henderson, Kentucky. It was actually a factory, it was advanced manufacturing. Darrell Littrell was taking me on a tour, he was the CEO and he had 50 employees and he was paying $100,000 a year to these employees. He was making the molds for auto parts, the molds for the faces of Whirlpool washers and dryers. He was running his place 24/7 in three shifts. He was looking for 50 more employees and couldn’t find them. Or you can go to the Louisville auto plant where Ford is expanding and they can find only one-third of the skilled electricians at $27 an hour that they need. I can go into county after county in central Kentucky and they can’t find enough skilled workers. Yet you can go to eastern Kentucky and some of the counties have near 20 percent unemployment. You can sense the despair that people have there as jobs that have been there for generations are no longer there.

So this is a big, big conversation and you’ve got to tackle it from a lot of angles. And K-12 is part of it. I do think the Kentucky Community and Technical College System is a big part of this. When I was working for Gov. Patton, I was actually the person who sat down and put pen to paper and wrote out House Bill 1. We were trying to take the community colleges and pair them with the technical schools and have them be more responsive to local employers. I’m not convinced that each and every school in the system is doing an optimal job of meeting the needs of local employers. The federal government has actually increased workforce development funding, but they’ve asked states to be more innovative and they’ve changed the investment board structures. We’re going to have to get that model right.

I think the Workforce Development secretary in my cabinet will be just as important as the Economic Development secretary, because one of the questions major employers always ask is, "Tell me about your workforce." I think we need to be looking at job training centers in our various regions to partner with local businesses to train folks. And the other thing we have to do a better job of in the K-12 system, is we need to do a better job of talking about financial literacy and planning for the future, both with students that are in the junior and senior years of high school as well as their parents. Because these are big decisions, making the decision whether or not to borrow significant amounts of money to go to a four-year institution and then what your career looks like after that, and how you’d pay down the debt. Or do you want to go maybe two years and train for a skilled position that may pay more. These are big, big discussions and you’re having them with people at the ages of `16, 17, 18, you need to involve their families as well. I think we’re going to have to do a better job of having those planning discussions for future employment with kids who are at the end of the K-12 system.

Q: And that would fall on the local school districts to play a role in that?

A:
They would play a role in that, absolutely.

Q: Going from career and technical education to early childhood education, what are your thoughts on beefing that up, or not?

A:
Oh, absolutely. It’s probably going to be one of my top couple of priorities. If there’s something I want to be remembered for, if I have to honor of being the next governor of Kentucky, once my term is over, if there’s something I want to be remembered for, I want the people of this state to say that he took Kentucky to the head of the pack when it came to early childhood education and making certain our children are ready for kindergarten. And that’s something that Sannie Overly is also very focused on if we’re honored enough to be elected – it’s going to be kindergarten readiness and will (also) be my wife’s signature issue as First Lady.

We still don’t have all-day kindergarten in all 173 districts, so to jump out and say the state’s going to mandate pre-K isn’t realistic, but that having been said, we’re spending 25 percent of our tobacco payment right now on early childhood education programs. There are federal funding streams becoming available for early childhood education that we can tap into that we’re not currently tapping into. I could foresee doubling our funding for early childhood education in my first couple of budgets. What I would envision is a lot of local control in this; we’re going to have to ask our local school districts to share some of their resources as well for pre-K programs. We’re doing a really good job of signing kids up for Medicaid; if seems like if we can find these Medicaid children if they’re not – and I realize they may be eligible for Head Start – but if they’re not in early learning programs, I want to make a bigger effort in terms of intervention and getting those children into early learning programs. So we’re going to have to build up some capacity to identify the children; we’re going to have to identify the funding stream. But getting at the children that would otherwise not have early learning opportunities and getting them into programs, is something that could really help break the cycle of poverty in some areas of Kentucky.

Q: You mentioned you could foresee doubling the funding for early childhood education. Is that predicated on obtaining more federal money?

A:
Yeah, that would be the first place I’d look. And I might be able to find some money elsewhere, redirect some funds. I do want to hold the line on taxes. But I do think there are ways if we’re creative in our funding and tapping into federal funding streams and reallocating some resources that we could potentially double the funding for early childhood education.

Q: What are your thoughts on teacher tribunal system reform to make it easier for teachers with disciplinary issues to be removed?

A:
I would want to see the specific proposal. I do think anyone who’s been disciplined and lost a job, I don’t think that the person who is the accuser has the burden of showing what happened should also be the final adjudicator, so that’s not something I would support. But I would want to see the specific proposal before I made a decision on that.

Q: How do you assess the state’s efforts so far in closing achievement gaps?

A:
We’ve made some strides but there’s always more that can be done. I cited to you earlier that we’ve seen over the last six or seven years our measure of college and career readiness has gone from 31 percent to 54 percent. I think that’s a significant closure of the achievement gap there as well. We were talking about being innovative in some of our schools: we do have challenges in some of our poorer areas, trying to make certain we get student achievement up and we need to be doing things differently in some particular areas, being innovative and trying to figure out ways that we can get those achievement scores up. I keep coming back to that 31 percent to 54 percent – I’m concerned that if we give in to baseless rhetoric that we’re going to end up throwing something out the window that is helping us make strides in achievement.

Q: Tax reform has been studied to death in Kentucky. If you are governor, are you going to make a serious push for this and what aspects of our tax system are most in need of changing?

A:
I think our tax system is somewhat outdated. I think the environment in Frankfort right now, we need to be focused on what’s the art of the possible. We have had a lot of studies on tax reform, we had one a couple of years ago that the lieutenant governor spearheaded and they put the proposals out there and the governor got behind some of them, but it’s more the art of the possible. We know what possible changes are, but the larger question for me is, as governor I’m going to have to govern in an environment where we have a Republican Senate and a Democratic House. And I need to sit down with legislative leadership and say, "What’s possible here?" – rather than having a study and a press conference – sitting down and saying "What’s possible," and how can we come up with a system that’s more fair. And that’s what I’ll be focused on. I think we can potentially cut our corporate income tax a little bit, potentially eliminate the state portion of the inventory tax. We may have to find some other areas to make up for that. My overarching goal would be to try to get a system that, when we get growth in the economy, we get growth in the revenue base, because we haven’t always seen that correlation in the past. Many economists have looked at our budget situation and have said our budget is inelastic. But rather than jump up and say, "Hey, I’m for tax reform," I’ve been around Frankfort long enough to know that I deal in what’s possible. So I think an incremental approach, sitting down in a revenue-neutral way moving forward and trying to plan this out with the Republican leadership in the Senate is the way that I will have to approach it.

Q: You mentioned early on the importance of the state board of education and the members of the state board. What qualities and qualifications would you look for in appointing members to the state board if you’re governor?

A:
Two qualities: passion and understanding. I would want people who are passionate about our K-12 education system and want to see it work in all areas, and understand the incredible responsibility that the state has for educating kids. By the time you put workforce development, higher education and K-12 education together, you’re 60 percent of the state budget. So the role that state government plays in education can’t be overstated. So I want people who are passionate. Secondly, I don’t want to put people in there who don’t understand the local issues, who don’t understand. I don’t want to have someone who has to learn on the fly and won’t be a productive board member for a couple of years. I want people who’ve had some experience either at the local level or state level, who understand the way that school boards work, the way they interface with superintendents and teachers. So I want passion and understanding and those would be the two qualities I would look for in any appointment.

Q: What about in terms of a broader representation, business, industry – we’ve been talking about career and technical education, what about that aspect?

A:
Yeah, obviously I would look. If you look at the local leaders oftentimes you find a local businessperson or someone who’s active in their local chamber. I would certainly want to have members on the board that come from the business side, who can speak to the types of students that we’re turning out in our educational systems.

Q: Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would like to convey?

A:
Just that I think that for students – we talked a little about career and technical education – the issue of college affordability is one that’s going to be a growing issue and we have to find ways, whether it’s bolstering our needs-based programs run by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority or working with our universities to try to keep costs down. We have to find ways to make college more affordable. That’s something I’m also going to be focused on.

Q: Most of those ways would involve money, correct?

A:
Yeah, money, or – university presidents may not like this – but they’re building a lot of buildings. Sometimes the class of the future may be the Internet. I think we’re going to have to take a serious look at how efficient our universities are being and can they be more efficient. Sometimes I think tuition increases are just a perfunctory thing that are getting passed through. We need to really get into some of these budgets and look at what’s going on. Yeah, it involves money, it involves money in either reallocation of resources or finding more assistance for needs-based programs or the like. Bucks for Brains is a program I’d love to see come back, I just don’t know if we can afford it. It all comes down to money. Again, I come back to I have a record as attorney general of doing more with less.

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