In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This issue’s conversation is with State Rep. John “Bam” Carney, the new chair of the House Education Committee. He represents Adair and Taylor counties and has been a public school teacher and an administrator for two decades. We caught up with Carney at the end of the legislature’s first week in January, before it recessed until Feb. 7.
Q: How long have you been a state legislator?
A. This is my fifth term, and I have been on the House Education Committee the entire time and have been vice chair for the minority party throughout that period.
Q. You are also an educator?
A. Yes, this is my 20th year in the public school system, and most of that time I was in the classroom. I have taught middle school and high school social studies, coached football and basketball and served on local site-based committees. I have worked in smaller independent school districts and rural school districts, mostly in Taylor and Washington counties. For the last four years, I have had a central office role in Taylor County, working in school safety, 21st Century (Community Learning Centers) and facilities.
Q. Has working in the central office changed your approach as a lawmaker?
A. It has helped me see some things, such as finances, from the central office perspective. I had a pretty good understanding of budgets from a legislative standpoint, but the time in the central office has given me a better understanding of the financial needs and restraints and constraints that school districts face. Working closely with the district finance director, you get a real-world understanding of finances.
Q. What are some of your goals for this legislative session?
A. One is to work with the state education department, the local school districts and the administration to come to a consensus on accountability. I am working with the education commissioner on ideas, and I am on the steering committee for the accountability system.
The implementation of Senate Bill 1 is going to be key because it is significant reform. At this time (January 5), we are waiting for it in the House. Until it comes over with possible amendments or committee subs, I am not ready to make any decisions on how we will approach it.
Q. What would you like to see generally in an accountability system?
A. I am one of handful of members still around from the passage of the original Senate Bill 1 in 2009, and I was part of the conference committee that worked on that. While I am certainly open to and think we need to look at some changes to our accountability system, particularly with the federal ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), I want this to be a deliberate approach, because we have made significant gains in Kentucky. I am on the Southern Region Education Board, and we just got back a few weeks ago from a conference and it is nice to hear them brag about Kentucky. A lot of that is because of some things that were changed and directed under the original Senate Bill 1. I do think there are some things we can do to improve the accountability system. Obviously, there is a push to restrict teaching to the test. That was what we were trying to do with the original Senate Bill 1 – we really need to just get back to teaching students. We don’t want it to the point that teachers and administrators feel so much pressure that they lose their emphasis on teaching students.
Q. Are there some specifics that you want to look at?
A. I think we need to have a huge discussion on program reviews. We hear that they are very time-consuming and burdensome and there is a question about how accurate the scoring is because districts are scoring their own. But in saying that, I want to make sure we still have some component that factors in the programs that fall under this, like visual and performing arts. I think it is important to have some measure in there. I don’t want to see measurement totally stripped out, because the reality seems to be if it is not assessed anymore, the program probably loses some of the emphasis it once had. I think we should get back to less testing but at the same time have an accountability measure that will truly measure the progress of individual students – comparing student A from one year to the next year.
Q. What about school choice?
A. We also are working with the administration on school choice issues, which is a big thing for them, but at the same time we are making sure we are very deliberate about the approach. We want to do all we can to make sure our traditional public school systems, which have done a very good job for most of the students, continue to be emphasized and supported in a proper manner. That is a huge goal: to have the discussions on school choice issues that the administration is supportive of, but at the same time, make sure we approach it very deliberately to make sure every effort is made to provide opportunities for all children, but not at the sacrifice of public schools that are currently, many of them – not all, but most – doing what I think is a pretty credible job.
Q. Do you have an opinion on school choice?
A. As a 20-year public educator, as a graduate of public schools – and my children are, or will be, public school grads – I want to do everything we can to make sure that whatever we pass or may pass protects traditional public schools that are doing a good job. In saying that, I am certainly open and have been having discussions about school choice, whether it be public charters, education savings accounts, vouchers – although personally, I am not a big fan of vouchers because I am concerned they would take too much funding from our public schools. We are going to debate these issues. At this time, with such a large number of new members in the majority to get to a consensus on some sort of public charter bill, it would be way too early to tell you what that would look like.
Q. You seem concerned about funding.
A. Public schools that have been doing a good job – it takes resources to do that, so whatever we do we don’t want to divert resources for our public schools to do these other things that I do think there are places for. If we are honest, there are students in Kentucky, gap students, with socioeconomic situations, that deserve a better opportunity than they are getting. That number is not huge because I think a vast, vast, vast majority of our public schools are doing a very good job. I am proud to represent three school districts, two of which are distinguished and one that is one point from being distinguished. I am of the opinion that many schools are doing very good work, so let’s make sure we give them the tools to continue, to build on and improve on that. As part of the school choice debate, I want to keep them on the agenda, too. If our public schools need more flexibility to do what is best for kids, let’s look at that because at the end of the day, we want to do what is best for kids, whether it is in the traditional public schools, which for 95 percent or 90 percent of our students, I think is always going to be the case. But we also are going to have the debate “Are there better alternatives for some populations of students?”
Q. Does that involve bringing in experts who have dealt with the school choice issue?
A. While we are out for the interim, we will be working on a lot of things to educate ourselves on the school choice or public charter issue. Groups will be coming in and doing some training. We are looking at other programs. Forty-three states have some type of public charter and so we have a lot to look at – both those that have things that work and those that have done a bad job.
Q. What role do you see school boards playing in decisions on school choice?
A. They have a vital role. We have met with KSBA and will continue to meet. Their input is welcome and wanted. At same time, hopefully they will understand from the bigger picture what we are trying to accomplish. I just ask the school board members to be open and bring ideas to us and help close the gaps for all those children.
Q. If some form of school choice is implemented, do you think school boards will be an authorizer?
A. Most ongoing discussions would include as one of the authorizers the local school board. There is a big debate about multiple authorizers, and I would certainly think they would be one of the authorizers. Depending on the final product, although it is way too early to tell, it may well be in some cases they would be the leading authorizer.
Q. Do you think legislation on school choice will be passed in this session?
A. There is always a chance because it is so complex we will leave without a resolution, but I think there is a good chance there will be some legislation passed on the issue.