In Conversation With ... Steve Beshear
In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
With the November general election just around the corner, this month’s installment has been expanded to encompass interviews with incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and his Republican challenger, Senate President David Williams
Q. If re-elected, what are your education goals for the next four years? And how might the current economic situation affect those goals?
A. As you know, we have been going through the worst recession of our lifetimes during the past three-and-a-half years, but I have continued to make the education of our children the top priority of the Beshear administration. While we have cut over $1 billion in spending out of our budget in nine different budget reduction processes, we have maintained the SEEK formula – the basic funding formula for classroom teaching – and we have kept education as the top priority, cutting a number of other things in order to keep education in that position.
Fortunately, we are beginning to see the economy slowly turning around and getting better in Kentucky. The best indication of that was the fact that a few weeks ago I was able to announce that having closed the books on our last fiscal year on June 30, we were able to deposit $122 million into our rainy day fund. It’s the first time any money has been in our rainy day fund since the recession started. What that indicates to me is that businesses are doing better, more individuals are working and therefore we are getting revenues that we did not expect or project. That is a good indication that things are beginning to improve.
We will have to be cautious as we move ahead until we can be certain exactly where our economy is going. Hopefully the next two-year budget will be somewhat better than what we’ve had to deal with over the last three-and-a-half years. If we have sufficient funds to begin broadening our horizons in the education area, we will be working with education leaders to determine the best places to invest our money.
I’m obviously very interested in early childhood education and development. I’m interested in increasing our graduation rate and I’m interested in making sure that our students are college and career ready. Within those broad areas we hopefully can make some progress, both with additional funds and with additional legislation that may help us.
This last three-and-a-half years, while we have not had a lot of additional monies to invest, we have continued to make significant progress in improving the educational process for our children in a number of ways. As you know, we had the Transforming Education in Kentucky Task Force, which was a statewide initiative to take a look at where we were in education and to determine what next steps to take to take education to the next level. I think there’s going to be a number of recommendations that will come out of that effort that we can address during this next General Assembly.
We also had my task force on early childhood development and education, and there are a number of recommendations that will be coming out of that that will better prepare our students for a competitive future.
We did pass House Bill 176 into law, which gave us more tools at the local level to evaluate and manage low-performing schools. And last but not least, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the common core academic standards. I think we’ve made a tremendous step forward in leadership in this country by doing that. We were also the first state to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver of the No Child Left Behind requirements and to replace those requirements with Kentucky’s model program.
Q. You have been a champion of pushing the dropout age to 18. How do you think that increase should be implemented in the schools?
A. The increase of the dropout age to 18 needs to be phased in over a period of time and it needs to be coupled with expanding alternative education opportunities. I understand there are some districts that feel they don’t have adequate programs yet to handle those children, and I want to make sure they do. Many of our districts already have those kinds of programs.
I think another concern is what increased costs there might be if those children remain in school as opposed to being allowed to drop out. Obviously we’re not going to leave those children in regular classrooms, particularly if they are disruptive in those regular classrooms. We do need alternative education opportunities that can get those children into a situation that can get their interest and where they can learn.
I think this should be phased in over a four-five year period and it needs to be coupled with making whatever investments are necessary so that every school district has the tools it needs to be able to handle those children, and get many more of them to graduate.
Q. Can you assess the implementation so far of Senate Bill 1 and if the timeline is advancing as anticipated?
A. I realize it is a massive overhauling and modernizing of our system of accountability. We are on an aggressive timeline to do that. I believe that Commissioner Holliday is doing a great job of leading that charge. He is reaching out and bringing in education leaders from all the districts and working through the issues that it brings up. We have also been working with teachers to make sure they understand this situation, while at the same time moving through the implementation of the common core standards, so we’ve got a lot on our plate out there. But we should continue to be as aggressive as possible and move ahead as rapidly as possible because Kentucky is in a leadership role.
Q. Where do you stand on charter schools?
A.I think that the idea of charter schools is a good one in terms of allowing that as a tool for local school districts to use if they think it would help them in their particular circumstances. I think that to develop that tool will require the Kentucky Department of Education sitting down with local education leaders, the legislature and teachers to figure out how to fashion that tool in a way that will fit within Kentucky’s unique education environment and will become a tool that local districts can use at their discretion.
Q. Would you support school boards being the local authorizing agent of those charter schools, if we have any?
A. I certainly think the idea of charter schools ought to be a tool in the hands of local school officials. They ought to be the ones to decide if that tool can improve education in their district. I tend to think that in the education area that local decision-making, for the most part, is best. We have elected school boards that are elected locally by the citizens in those communities and I like that system. I think it makes your school board most responsive to your community, and I think it’s where most of these types of decisions should be made.
Q. Can you give us a budget preview for the upcoming session, particularly in regards to how education funding will be affected, specifically in regards to SEEK and facilities?
A. Even during the last three-and-a-half years as we’ve gone through this historic recession and I’ve balanced the budget nine times and have cut over $1 billion in spending, I have made the SEEK formula and the funding for the SEEK formula the top priority in any budget that I have put together, and I will continue to do so. I want to make sure that we don’t shortchange classroom teaching if at all possible. I can guarantee the education community that will remain a top priority of mine.
I feel cautiously optimistic that if our economy continues to improve as it seems to be right now that hopefully a little pressure will be off of everyone in terms of their revenues and expenditures. Obviously, we’re not out of this recession yet and I think it will take some time before we’re back to where we were before it started, but at least I see things starting to turn around and hopefully we’re moving in the right direction.
While we must continue to improve the quality of education that we must deliver to our children, I don’t want us to forget the substantial progress that we have made over the last 20-25 years in Kentucky. Ever since the KERA reforms of the early 1990s, the education community, the business community, citizens at large as well as government, have worked together to make significant improvements in the quality of education that our children are receiving.
In 1990, Kentucky probably ranked 48th or 49th when it came to most education rankings. The fact that we’re up in the 30s in most educational rankings, up in the 20s in others, the fact that we’re performing so well on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reports really tells us that we have come a long way. We certainly still have a long way to go, but we have every reason to be proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last 20-25 years in improving the quality of education for our children.