In Conversation With ... Jack Conway

In Conversation With ... Jack Conway

In Conversation With ... Jack Conway

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 interview with Jack Conway is the version, edited for space, that appeared in the Kentucky School Advocate. To read the unedited Q&A, 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.

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.

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.

Q: 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.
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 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."

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. 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. If (children) are not in early learning programs, I want to make a bigger effort in terms of intervention and getting those children into early learning programs.

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.

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.

Q: 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. Secondly, I don’t want to put people in there who don’t understand the local issues, who don’t understand. 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.
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