In Conversation with ... Matt Bevin - full transcript

In Conversation with ... Matt Bevin - full transcript

In Conversation With ... Matt Bevin - 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 Matt Bevin. 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?

More than anything, we want to make sure that at every level, kids are ready for the next level. What we are trying to get them ready for is sometimes referred to as the postsecondary world, and we want kids to be able to compete, either through a two-year or four-year supplemental education. Increasingly, the world into which we are sending children will not allow them to thrive without any kind of follow-on education. So my vision and my hope for that kind of K-12 period is to ensure that at every turn – and we often measure them at third grade and eighth grade, etc. – that they are reading at appropriate levels, performing math at appropriate levels, that they are on track to be able to be college-ready or postsecondary ready at every turn.

And I think everything we do in education, every dollar we spend, every incentive that we offer, every encouragement that we give, every teacher that we hire, every program that we implement, should be focused on exactly that goal.

Q: In establishing those priorities would you suggest any specific programs?

Are you talking about K-12? Or pre-K? Because we have early childhood programs to try to get kids ready to be able to sit in the classroom and be ready to learn, and early childhood education is critical and the amount of commentary to the effect that I would disagree with that, it is absolute baloney. I have nine children, and I understand very critically how important it is to have quality early childhood education.

There is a study, I believe it was in the May 2015 issue of Psychology Today, and it looked at a 30-year study of pre-K and kindergarten, kind of preprimary education in Germany. It followed kids who went through one of three tracks: play-based only, pure rigorous academics and a sort of hybrid, and they looked at the social development and the contributions of these kids in the years that followed, into their adulthood, and it was fascinating. Interestingly, they found that the kids that were the most productive, well-rounded contributing members of society had gone through play-based and/or hybrid versions. I think we would be wise to learn from things like that. We’ve spent in the last decades $170 billion on Head Start. Are we getting a good return on that money? We have the money. Let’s spend it wisely.

There are some programs being done in northern Kentucky right now with Skyward and the United Way where they are doing some fantastic things in the public schools, and they are doing them basically as an alternative to and a complement to and a variation of some of the traditional Head Start programs, and they are having some very good success. As governor, I am going to look for things like that. Where can we copy things that are working well? There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We’ve got the resources to use them wisely. So that is at the early level.

Along the way, let’s have good metrics. We need strong standards. We need to ensure that our teachers are incentivized to be able to bring kids up to that standard, but one thing I am concerned about – we are auditing our teachers to death. We’ve got great teachers in the system – they know how to teach, they are called to this, they have a passion for this, they have a love for this, they are good at it. But we are handcuffing them, and we are making them more and more administrators and test givers and submitting them to audits at any number of levels to a degree that is causing them tremendous frustration and robbing them of the abilities to do frankly what they love to do, want to do and what they are equipped to do. So again, let’s look at programs that work. There are things that work and things that don’t. I'm not going to throw things out that are working, but I think we can be smarter with respect to some of the things we are doing.

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

In the short term, we have to stop the bleeding, start making the contributions that are supposed to be made and we have to stop misallocating monies or moving monies from what we thought and at one time was, in fact, an overfunded plan, so we used that money to shore up the budget on other fronts. We have to stop doing that. That is not a viable contract. We made a promise to our teachers, both those who are retired and those who are still teaching. We have a legal and moral obligation to meet that. I am the only one so far in this race that has put forth a plan to save this. I did this shortly after entering the primary many, many months ago.

I have spent most of my life in the pension business, and so what is important to understand, and you know this well, we don’t have as many people working in America, teachers or otherwise. It used to be you had seven workers for every retiree. The demographics were different. We could afford plans that frankly we can’t afford. So how to shore it up now? Stop the bleeding. Keep from digging deeper in the hole. All of the things that must be done, no matter who the next governor is.

Certain things must be done, and we can talk about those in a moment. But even if they are done and even if in conjunction with them being done, we end up with a stronger economy based on job creation, on broader economic support coming from better health care and education and the very tax structure and the very thing employers want to see so we have more jobs and economic prosperity. Even if all that happens, and we need it to happen, it is going to take 20 to 30 years before we are back to fully funded. Anybody who will tell you otherwise truly doesn’t know what they are talking about. It will take a long time.

But every day we spend climbing out of the hole as opposed to digging deeper into it is a good day. In short, the checks continue to come. So one of the things we have to do is freeze the existing plans for everybody who is in them. The defined benefit plans for those in it up until a few years ago, and the more recent cash benefit plan with its guaranteed rate of return for those who are in it now, and that includes teachers that are a week into their teaching careers and those that have been retired for decades. For every single one of them, that promise has been made, that promise needs to be kept. That is the first thing we need to do, is to freeze the plan for those in place so that they get what has been promised to them.

For every new hire, we are going to have to move to a defined contribution plan—not for those in the system now but for anybody who is not yet a teacher but might become a teacher someday. There is no financial ability to do otherwise. I started a firm here in Kentucky that today manages $5 billion in pension assets. I spent most of my life working in this industry. So I am just stating this as a matter of financial reality.

So, back to the first part of the question. How do we shore up the hole in the short term? We don’t need to plug up the whole hole. We just need to stop bleeding it out. There is enough money now to cut checks to retirees as long as we don’t dig deeper. But as you know, we are down into the 20 percent levels of funding, and it is getting to the critical point. We just got downgraded by the S & P because of our pension crisis.

Q: So you don’t believe a bond issue is the answer?

No, and let me tell you why. Think about this. Who is going to pay that bond off? Our children and grandchildren, under the assumption that they are still going to live in this state and have jobs to do it with? That is a big assumption the way we are going. We were going to stick it to our children and grandchildren for $3.3 billion dollars that would have only patched one-third of one hole in one plan. In this case, the teachers’ plan, which is most critical to teachers. But every plan is severely underfunded, some more than others, some even more than the teachers’. So patching one-third of one hole in a plan and sticking it to the future to pay for the problem without fixing the problem, that’s not a solution. Let’s stop the bleeding first. Otherwise, we are pouring water into a bucket with holes in it.

Q: What are your thoughts on the SEEK basic funding formula?

As it stands right now, I am not looking to make any alterations to it. I think if you were to ask your individual school districts, I think at every level people would say we are not getting enough funding, and I understand that, and frankly every department in the state feels the same way and we haven’t had many raises or other adjustments or anything anywhere in a long time with a few exceptions here and there. And while it is true enough, I am not looking to make any changes.

I think we have so many other changes that we need to make that leaving SEEK essentially in place for the immediate time being makes the most sense. However, I think we need to be smart. Just as when we moved, in the past, whether it be KERA or other things, we’ve made changes to the educational system in a way that was meant to have an impact that sometimes in hindsight we realize were not as effective as we would have hoped for. Could we modify the SEEK funding formula so it is more effective? Probably. Is that an immediate priority for me? No, we have to stop the bleeding of the pension system first.

Q: As governor, would you support the continued use of Kentucky Core Academic, Standards, and please explain your reasoning.

Some years ago, we had a program called CATS, and it wasn’t an effective program. It left us, as Kentuckians, our children in particular, trailing the pack relative to where we would have wanted to be. It wasn’t a good program. And it wasn’t going to get us there. It wasn’t because we didn’t have good teachers, and it wasn’t because they didn’t try hard. They did. But they were somewhat encumbered by the fact that we didn’t have very rigorous standards. We need strong standards. I cannot be more emphatic about that. We need strong standards and we need strong curriculum to support those standards.

Specific to your question, I am not convinced that the current standards we have are the answer. Now, that is not to say that they need to be tossed on their ear. But I don’t think the path we are on is taking us where we wanted to go. I look at the creation of these programs and this curriculum and actually, it is the standards more than the curriculum, and the issue I have is this: We have turned teachers into test administrators, we have turned our students into test takers, because while these are only suggested standards, and supposedly the curriculum as to how to deliver these standards is up to the individual school board, the schools themselves, that is arguably the way it is supposed to work.

But it is important to understand all the testing is overseen by, administered by, written by and profits are made by one company and that company is Pearson. Nothing against Pearson. I work in the private sector. I am all about companies making a profit as best they are able. But I am concerned, however, if you have one company in this case that controls the entire testing process, and they also happen to be the largest publisher in the country of curriculum and textbooks, whether or not it is supposed to be the case that people have control and autonomy over how they deliver this curriculum, it is not going to be the case if the tests are being written by people who also sell the books. Soon enough, and already, we are seeing evidence of it, is that the tests themselves for people to do well on them, they have to follow a pretty similar curriculum. The curriculum itself then, I think, ends up being controlled by people who are for-profit, benefiting off this testing of our students. Is that automatically bad? No. Is it necessarily a nefarious thing? No. Is there a potential for it to be misused and ultimately disadvantageous to the very students we are trying to help? Yes. That is my concern.

So I think we need to have a very thoughtful re-evaluation of this. I am not frankly a proponent of these standards as the best we can do. I do believe as I said earlier, we need strong standards. I believe in more local control when it is not driven by the testing as determined by a single for-profit company. I think our teachers would agree. Our teachers are frustrated by the fact they have been handcuffed now in large measure. I think we can do better. Massachusetts, for example, had fantastic curriculum standards. They had standards and curriculum to go with it. They were No. 1 in America in language arts, in math. Their students did well. In no group is everybody going to be happy with everything, but their teachers were happy and doing well and the proof was in the pudding and the students did well. It is not a perfect solution, there is no perfect system. But it was a very good one.

The Fordham Institute, a good nonpartisan evaluator of systems and programs and curriculum, they noted that as there was this uniform adoption of what is known as the Common Core State Standards that some states would see a dramatic drop in their output, in their outcomes. Other states, like us, might go up. One final thing I will say on this: The first year that we implemented this, we saw a slight uptick, and there have been those who are quick to say that see, we have seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of our graduates in the last several years as a result of this new curriculum and new standards, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in those who are college ready. But if people are being honest about it, we have changed the criteria by which we measure that, so it is an apple to an orange. And, if in fact, we are looking closely at apples to apples, we see that some students, more of your suburban students and more of your white students, have in fact seen what seems to be slightly upwardly trending benefits, but our urban students and our predominantly black students are not seeing this; it is quite the opposite. There was an initial small bump, trending downward since then. The very people that we said we put this in place to reach, the more disadvantaged. We can’t allow this bifurcation to happen. They are being further separated from the pack.

Q: What is your opinion of the current system of assessing students and schools in this state? If unfavorable, how would you change it?

Again, this is what I talked about when I referred to the testing process and the auditing process. It is too much. We are overtesting our children and to what end? The kids are unhappy. The parents are unhappy. The teachers are unhappy. Why are we doing this? There is nobody that is happy about the process.

Q: Do you have other ideas about how to measure or test?

Yes, we always have to have tests and to measure. When I was a kid we took California achievement tests or some sort of thing or the Iowa achievement test. There were certain standardized tests that everyone took. You’ve got the ACT, SAT and PSAT for kids. We do want a way to measure one kid versus another, but the way in which we do it, the degree to which we do it, let us come up with a way, a solution that works best for Kentucky and do not assume that what works best in Alaska or in Alabama is the same as what is needed here in Kentucky.

Q: You’ve said you favor charter schools for Kentucky. What kind of governing structure do you favor – authorization by the local board of education or a statewide agency?

Let’s start locally, because who knows better the need than those school districts? And let’s start with the schools that are failing. There is a lot of concern about academic competition; competition is good, and for those who are quick to say that this is somehow going to come at the expense of public education – we need strong public education. That is where the vast majority of our students are getting their education and will continue to get their education, and we have to be able to support the teachers and administrators that are a part of it. So we don’t want to turn the whole thing upside down.

But we have schools that have been failing for generations now. Systemically over and over, with no end in sight, despite what people will tell you, they are still failing. They have the vast majority of their students dropping out or not participating at grade level, in fact, anyone participating at grade level is like a third-standard deviation anomaly. It is unexpected. If in fact we have programs like that that are broken, that don’t work, let’s come up with an alternative. It is not fair to saddle a parent with having to put their child in a school like that when you know the outcome is failure. Nobody should have that. So let’s start with public charter schools. The students going there are public students, the funding comes in a similar manner, everyone will be better for this. We will sharpen the pencils for all. I am a big believer that with the control at the local level – with the parents, the teachers, the superintendents, the principal working together, they are going to come up with a better solution than the one coming from Frankfort or Washington, D.C.

Q: Career and Technical Education is gaining more attention in the education and business communities. Will providing additional funding for CTE be a focus for your administration?

Yes. Absolutely. It is important that we realize this is a part of our postsecondary allocation of dollars. We spend at the state in taxpayer money about $1 billion a year in postsecondary education. That is a pretty significant amount. I had the same conversation last week – I met with all our state university presidents – all gathered in a room, the presidents of UK, UofL, Morehead, Western, Eastern, Northern, the whole gamut. The only one who wasn't there was the KSU president. I told them, ‘I want you to understand,’ because they are concerned their funding has been cut in recent years, their funding has been slowly cut so over the last decade they have they have received $173 million less now than 10 years ago, and it has been putting a strain on them as the costs of everything else have been going up, so they wanted to know how can we bridge some of that gap? And I said, some of that is going to be driven by if we have the ability to divide dollars.

I am a big believer that we should have an outcomes-based funding, and what I mean by that is let’s incentivize the very behaviors we say we want. Let’s incentivize the very outcomes that we say we want. If we say we want STEM degrees, we want people to have certain proficiencies, some of these vocational skills, let’s incentivize that outcome, let’s provide funding and within the billion dollars, proportion that based on the delivery of that outcome. This is the right thing to do. It is what most states do. It is what those states that are most successful at creating jobs do. We have thousands of jobs in this state right now, unfilled. In Bowling Green and Warren County alone, right now, 850 jobs are unfilled. They are struggling. In northern Kentucky, 700 jobs unfilled. In Hart County, right in the middle of the I-65 corridor, in that county alone there are 100 jobs unfilled.

Q: What kind of jobs are these?

Varying degrees of skilled jobs. These are all jobs that start at double the minimum wage and go up with benefits. They are good jobs. Thousands of them unfilled. Some of them will require vocational training, the technical trades and there are programs, we have some schools that are well-positioned to get kids ready for those, but we also have private sector entities like Toyota, that has developed a program called FAME, a great program. They bring high school kids in and get them geared up and trained so that by the time they are ready for the workforce they are ready for the workforce and they are willing to hire these kids at $50,000, $60,000, $80,000-a- year jobs. These are kids coming into really good, solid career jobs. This is what we need more of.

If there is anything our state can be truly great at, it will be by being the manufacturing hub. I’m talking about technical manufacturing. A lot of people don't realize that the No. 1 contributor to our state’s GDP, the No. 1 sources from products exported is the aviation field. Businesses related to avionics. We should have a lot more of that. We should, so I think the way we are going to get that, and it is what I told the university presidents, we can’t promise you the money is going to come back to you, but I can promise you as governor, as the other dollars you are already getting, incentivizing you to produce the types of the graduates to fill the jobs that employers want. Dart (Dart Container Corp.) in Hart County alone has told the judge executive, ‘We could bring hundreds of jobs to Hart County if we thought they could be filled.’ Instead, they are probably going to take them to Tennessee. So I am a big, big proponent of technical training, of vocational training, starting even at the high school level.

Q: Please explain your position on early childhood education.

It is critical, it is imperative that we have it, but we have to be smart about it if we want the results to be what we want them to be. If it is just going to end up being day care, with no educational benefit, nobody wants that, including the parents. We want children to be ready for first grade, third grade and eighth grade. If they are not reading at the third-grade level on par, they are going to struggle for the rest of their academic lives and work lives. Every study has shown that. So how do we empower, at the local level, the greatest amount of control and ingenuity and how do we unencumber our teachers to allow them the greatest amount of creativity? It goes back to this program I referred to earlier that the United Way is very involved in pioneering in northern Kentucky and they are in the school systems, right now. There are good things. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Let’s look at programs that are working.

Q: What makes that program in Northern Kentucky different?

It is still kind of in its infancy, but it is showing promising results, in that it is smaller scale, it is not one-size-fits-all, it is not trying to say everyone must do the following. It ends up being more creative, it gives more control to the teachers. It gives more ability for them to use their creativity, ingenuity and their ability as teachers. So, it is because it is not as controlled. What has become the problem with some of the programs like Head Start is that they are so heavily regulated. There is protocol and standard operating procedure to the degree that they become mostly very bureaucratic.

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

I am a proponent of finding ways for that to happen. I was talking to a superintendent recently and he was basically told, ‘You cannot remove these teachers.’ And he in response said, ‘I am just telling you right now there is zero chance they will ever teach in this county again. They will not teach in my school district.’ That was sort of an impasse. In the past, teachers were not used to hearing that. But bottom line is we want people to be fairly treated; we don’t want people to be dismissed for no reason. We also don't want people, for whom there is great reason to dismiss them, to be precluded from being dismissed. Basically the equivalent of tenure, starting at five years and beyond. It is not like it is at the college level. It shouldn’t be so hard to get a teacher out after just a few years as a teacher. And that is unfair to the school system, to the principals, to the superintendents, as well as most importantly to the students and the parents who are funding this. So I am a big believer that it should be looked at, it should be re-evaluated. We don’t want it to be punitive, but we want it to work.

Q: How would you assess the state’s efforts thus far to close achievement gaps? Where would this fit on your priority list for education?

It is critical. If one end of the boat has a hole in it, the whole boat is going to sink. So we cannot afford to have, as I said earlier, to have a bifurcated result. This is one of the issues I have to our current approach to curriculum. It is not having the desired effect because we are trying to apply one size fits all. People would say we are not, but in essence that is what we are trending toward. What is happening is our urban students and our black students are falling farther behind. They are not keeping up, and this was supposed to remedy that. So we have got to come up with a system whereby people can all benefit from this to similar degrees. If people start at a lower level, well, proportionately they will come up the same way. They will still be behind, but we don't want them falling farther behind. We don’t want the gap widening. We have got to come up with a methodology for closing that gap.

Q: Tax reform in Kentucky has been studied to death. Will your administration make a serious push for this and what aspects of our tax system are most in need of changing?

Bottom line yes, we need comprehensive tax reform. And for different people, it means different things. For people who are conservative to the nth degree, it means nothing but cutting taxes. To people who are liberal to the nth degree, it means nothing but raising taxes. And I think the reality is we have to be thoughtful in our consideration about both ends of the spectrum and realizing we are not going to be at either end.

Overall, I do think that the tax structure in this state is too high—it prevents people from moving here; it prevents companies from coming here; it prevents people from starting and investing in businesses here and moving here from other places. We have to lower the overall tax burden in this state. But it is not simply a function of you cut this, you cut that other thing and magically, that is going to be the solution. We are in very, very dire straits financially in the state. Depending on which rating agency you check, we have either the second-, third- or fourth-worst credit of any state in America. Only a couple of states in America have a worse credit rating than us. And the reason, the S & P cited when it just downgraded us last week, was because of our pension crisis. Our unresolved pension liabilities, and no one’s willingness to take this on.

We need to do things like get rid of the death tax. We are one of only six states that still has one. Why is that ? People who have means, they are crazy if they die in this state. They all move to Florida. They move there because of taxes, but when they do, they take their children and grandchildren with them and when that money changes hands, those children and grandchildren have put down roots. So we are losing out on the best and brightest in terms of those who made money and that doesn’t mean they are better than, they just happened to have the resources. We want that capital to stay in the state. That is why Florida and Texas among others are booming. Because they have made it very tax-advantaged to be there, to live there, to work there and also to die there and pass on your wealth there.

If we are going to be a manufacturing hub for America, as we could and should be, and I think will be, why are we taxing inventory in this state? There are things like that we just have to address. The overall tax burden is just too high. We shouldn't be taxing production, we should move, as have many states, to a more consumption-based tax structure. That is most equitable. It is also the hardest to cheat. ’Cause you pay it when you buy something.

Q: How is education affected by changes in the tax structure?

If you look at my Blueprint for a Better Kentucky, it is simple steps. Tax reform is not like a light switch that you turn off and on. We need it to be comprehensive. Some taxes will move, invariably, one way or another. What you don’t want to do is undermine the things we need. Frankly there is no one who would disagree that funding education is critical. Funding for education is something that employers look at in a big way. They want to make sure we have an educated workforce, not only for their children but for their future employers. Will my kids and other kids be capable of working at companies like mine? We do not want to cut off our nose to spite our face. One of the things people often say is we are going to cut this, we are going to cut that. Nobody wants to pay more taxes. But we pay them for a reason. To pay for public education is one of the most profound and critical reasons and the biggest part of our budget every year.

Q: What qualities and qualifications would you look for as governor in appointing members to the state board of education?

People who have been educators in the classroom. People who have been there, done that. If you don’t know, through firsthand experience, what you are going to be responsible for overseeing, how are you going to be the most effective overseer of it that you could be? So my first instinct would be that the most qualified people would be those people who have been in those shoes. I really believe that. That isn’t to say you can’t get someone who brings perspective, for example in finance, perhaps someone who has been a CPA to help school districts wrestle with budget issues, but as it relates to this particular board, where it deals with the issues like we have been talking about like curriculum and processes and how do we avoid having a widening gap between different socioeconomic aspects of our society – the people wrestling with that better know what they are talking about. From personal experience. Not from a book. Not from a white paper. But from being in a classroom. I am already looking at people who bring that kind of qualification. Secondary to the classroom experience, administrative experience. People who have been administrators as well. Maybe they spent 15 years in classroom and the next 15 working in varying degrees of administration as, say, a principal or superintendent. We need that kind of expertise as well.

Q: What does the administrative experience add?

The ability to not only come up with ideas, but to come up with solutions. Ideas are easy. You don’t have to be an academic to come up with ideas for the classroom. But somebody who has been in the classroom or a superintendent in a school district would have the ability, more than somebody who has never been in those shoes, to say, ‘Hey, I am telling you that is the kind of thing that is not going to work.’ The broader their experience, the better. And I also believe in more power going to the local level. I think superintendents frankly should have more control over the hiring and firing of principals that they oversee.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to discuss?

I would say in closing, local control is better. Who better than a teacher in the classroom, the principal in that school, the superintendent in that district, who better than the parents in that community to know what is best for those students and the best way to spend dollars, to allocate the slim resources, who better than them? I believe local control is better at every turn. This is something I will be a proponent of and I will push for. Also I would say I am the father of nine children and many members of my family have been educators, public school teachers. I am not an expert on this, I have never been a public education teacher. I did teach English in Japan for half a year, so I have stood in front of the classroom, I have made lesson plans, but my experience is very limited compared to the teachers who will be reading this.

Four of my children area not native English speakers, so they have to learn differently; four of my nine kids are adopted so I recognize that our school systems are wrestling with issues and the solutions are not cookie cutter. I come at it from the perspective of someone who wants desperately, if no other reason than selfish reasons, but there are other reasons, to have a system, whereby young people at every level, at every avenue have the best education they can have.
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