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 elected governor, what will your education goals be?
A. The entire time I’ve been in the General Assembly I’ve focused on education issues and education will continue to be a top priority for me. I want to make sure that we continue implementation of Senate Bill 1. I want to make sure that the curriculum that we’re adopting at the national level continues to emphasize basic skills: reading and particularly math. I want to make sure that the assessment goes forward and that teachers, parents, and decision-makers can have longitudinal information on each student to see how they are progressing.
I want to make sure that we empower local school districts. I want to make sure that we reduce in any way we can the involvement of the federal department of education or the state department of education. I’m more results oriented and I believe that once high expectations are set that we ought to give school systems more latitude to get there. I would like to see fewer people located in the central offices, fewer people in the tower where the state education department is, less time spent on paperwork as far as compliance situation with federal and state monies that come down, and to focus into a vigorous effort to give every child in the state an opportunity to be whatever he or she can be.
I know that those are rather general statements, but I think people in education understand what I’m talking about when I say those things. The other thing that I want to do during the four years of my governorship is the hiring of principals – we strengthened that but I want to monitor how the hiring of principals is working to make sure superintendents have the authority to put the right people in the principal’s position, after consultation with the site-based people.
I also want to create better possibilities of career paths for teachers. At present, the only way for teachers to improve their income is to go into administration or to go into one of the areas where there is extended employment. Even when you get into principals or supervisor positions, the primary additional money they make comes by virtue of being paid more days, not by being paid more.
I really think that if we look at those things, we can address the issues we have recruiting and retaining teachers who can teach calculus or Algebra II or physics, or all of those disciplines – primarily STEM courses – that are really hard for us to compete to get.
I feel very strongly you have to look at differentiated pay. You have to give the authority to the school districts to set salary ranges necessary to be competitive.
I want to continue to look at the problems we have in areas that have higher concentrations of poverty, whether it’s in Appalachia or in the urban core of our cities. In Louisville in particular I’m going to continue to focus on neighborhood schools as an intervention in schools that are failing. Over the past several years we’ve developed some alternatives to go into those schools, but I think we can broaden the choices we have in those areas by including charter schools.
Q. It sounds like you are in favor of charter schools. What form do you think they should take and should local school boards be the authorizing agencies for those?
A. I think that local school boards should be the authorizing agency. Whether or not we create an additional authorizing agency, like the (universities’) schools of education, I’m open to discussion about. I’ve always used the phrase ‘voluntary charter schools’ because if you have counties or districts with small populations, it would be very difficult to maintain public schools in those areas if someone came in and authorized a charter school. I think that you have to look at the situation, and whatever the chartering entity.
Where I am now is that the local school boards would be a chartering organization and there should be an appellate process, and when you go through that process the presumption should be in favor of the charter that people seek, rather than presumptively rule against it, because you might have districts that are recalcitrant or unreasonable. Those are things that we can work through.
It’s not the answer to everything and I’m sure not all charter schools are good, but we have areas that have been very resistant to education improvement and we have to address that because the kids in those schools are waiting for us, and the intervention modes that have been used, especially in Jefferson County, have been ineffective.
Q. Do you see any areas of Senate Bill 1 that need to be tweaked or revisited?
A. There are some people who are concerned about math education and other areas, and whether it’s directly related to the provisions of Senate Bill 1 or not, people believe it is. For example, there are folks that complain you can’t take algebra I again, that you have to go ahead and put kids in algebra II and they’re not ready for it. In the session, I’ve asked members of the Education Committee to look into it. We know that children, even at the highest levels of expectation, learn at different rates and some of them are going to fall behind, so I surely don’t want to have any statutory direction that would keep young people from being successful in their studies because we push them into the next class too quickly. But at the same time, it’s extremely important to keep high expectations and rigor.
Q. Can you give a budget preview for the upcoming session?
A. A budget preview in one word is: bleak. It’s really quite outrageous that Gov. Beshear continues to paint such a rosy picture of our budget situation. The truth of the matter is, the bond rating agencies downgraded Kentucky – both Moody’s and Fitch – before S & P downgraded the United States of America, and these are indications of your financial health.
Primarily, we have a state that’s not growing well-paying jobs, that has a tax structure that discourages people from locating here and hiring other people. When you have a society or state that is not growing and producing well-paying jobs, you do not have revenue coming in to do the things you need or want to do.
So we have some severe financial problems. We have tax policies in the state that will not allow us to grow. We’re just going to have to change the tax structure to grow our state, and until we grow our state, we’re going to continue in every session in the General Assembly to go back up to Frankfort and have cuts and slashes on things and everyone is going to have a tremendous problem in making their budget.
What I want to do is be honest with school boards and education leaders about what our financial situation is so they can do the hard, budgeting jobs that they have to do without being concerned that we might call them to say that this next installment of your SEEK money is being withheld or is not coming. It’s better to measure twice before you cut once.
Q. Do you favor increasing the dropout age to 18 and if so, how do you think that should be implemented?
A. I don’t believe that raising the dropout age to 18 will affect the quality of education that any young person in the state of Kentucky is going to get. Most people who don’t want to be in school when they get to the age of 16, stay in school because they want to get their driver’s license. And most kids that drop out, drop out closer to 18 than they do at 16. How many drop out at 16? Not as many as at 17 or 18 … and what are you going to do with these kids?
This is an unfunded mandate. Rather than make attendance compulsory for them, it would be more appropriate when those young people are identified to try to get some kind of alternative approach, get them in GED classes or make sure you some have sort of program available so they can get ready to be employed.
The real issue is getting involved in these kids’ lives and identifying them earlier. Several schools in my district have done interventions in the kids’ lives by sitting all of the eighth-grade teachers down in school and saying, ‘Which kids do you believe out of all of the kids in the school are further behind or fits a profile of an individual that might be a drop out?’ and intervening into that rather than mandating a holding room somewhere.
Q. Any other thoughts?
A. I am very optimistic about the capacity of Kentucky teachers and administrators to meet the challenge that we have. We’re just going to have to spend limited dollars in more streamlined ways; we need to get the paperwork off of them and the administrative costs off of them and set up a system of accountability so that we can make sure that no kids are slipping through the cracks.