Voice Recognition

KSBA News Article

In Conversation With ... State Sen. Stephen West

State Sen. Stephen West

Kentucky School Advocate
February 2023

Q. You’re a cattle farmer and a real estate attorney. What made you interested in joining the Senate Education Committee, which you now chair?

When I was first elected in 2015, I was interested in educational issues and requested the ag committee and education. I was placed on several committees and became chairman of the budget review subcommittee on postsecondary education. So I got involved early on educational issues and just gravitated to them. For some reason education has interested me more than agricultural issues.

Q. You say that your mother was a teacher?

Yes, she taught in Grant County, where I went to school. My wife has her master’s in education and taught in public schools. We homeschool our three kids and have from start to finish.

Q. As chair of the committee, what are your top priorities, not just for this short session, but moving forward?

Every year, we say, this is the short session, it’s just meant for cleanup and we’re not going to have a lot of bills, and then, it’s never that way. <laugh> The bills are piling up as we move into session. One of the biggest issues we will attempt to tackle is the teacher shortage. You’ll see bills from the House and Senate. Also, there will be some parental rights/transparency bills. During COVID, as parents were able to see what their kids do in school, some had questions and want to know more. Average daily attendance is another issue. We froze daily attendance numbers during COVID and some districts have had growth and are being negatively affected by that. And, we’ve already promised to do our best to fund school security.

Q. Have you been able to look past this session and think about goals for education beyond it?

I haven’t thought about next year; I’m totally focused on this year. But one of my basic goals will always be to focus on fundamentals. When any organization, whether it’s a basketball team or a corporation, gets off track and needs to correct things, they usually try to get back to fundamentals. With our Kentucky scores, there’s a lot to be desired. One way to improve is to focus on basic core functions early and do our best to remove other focuses or bureaucracy. Rep. James Tipton and I helped pass Senate Bill 9 and hopefully that will help with literacy. And we hope to do more, maybe expand it to math.

Q. Do you have any predictions about education-related legislation that might pass this year?

I quit making predictions a long time ago, especially when it comes to sessions. Usually if there is something I think is a slam dunk it doesn’t make it. And, at the end in March, we may be passing something that I don’t even know at this point exists. But, if I had to predict, I would suspect some type of parental rights bill, and one or more bills related to teacher shortages. That is big problem without a single solution, not just for Kentucky but everywhere. We’ll need multiple initiatives to solve it.

Q. You worked on Senate Bill 9 for quite a few years. What brought literacy to the forefront for you and what do you expect to see next as far as literacy education goes?

State Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, spent time at Simmons Middle School in Fleming County as “principal for a day.” (Photo provided) 


The scores underlined the fact that we need to do something different. James Tipton and I felt the Read to Achieve (RTA) teachers were doing the best they could but we just weren’t reaching enough students with the current model. At a Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) conference several years ago, we attended a presentation about Mississippi’s early literacy program and its success. We returned to Kentucky with the challenge to take that model and making it fit Kentucky by setting it up legislatively and getting the working parts in order. As with any piece of legislation, it took us three or four years to get there.

Q. Where do you think this will go next, though?

We believe in SB9. KDE has hit the ground running and it’s already been fairly successful with the participation it’s getting through professional development and teacher training. We think it will revolutionize early literacy education.

Q. Are there concerns about continued support and funding?

No, I don’t worry about that. This is not a pilot project. The first two years of funding are there and we’ve used some ARPA funds. Then, after those first couple of years, we’ve put in, I think it is $11 million each year of our own funding. We know it will take funding each budget year, and I think the return on investment will be huge. For example, in Mississippi, as reading scores improved, so did math scores.

One of the things I learned from working on this is that some states, especially in the South, have used fourth-grade reading scores to plan for how many prison beds they need in new prisons. So, if you want to have fewer prison beds, make sure children can read by third grade. Now as a caveat, you may not see any true success from this early literacy work for three or four years. We don’t expect instant results.

Q. Apart from literacy education, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing public education in Kentucky?

I really don’t think there’s one thing, but a hot button issue that we’re probably going to look at is school discipline. It is a huge issue and it impacts not only scores but the teacher shortage situation. You’ve got teachers eligible for retirement who would have stayed but leave because of discipline issues. So many problems with education in Kentucky are related to issues that have nothing to do with education.

Q. I understand that you spent a day last fall as principal for a day. What was that experience like and what did you learn?

I have done Bourbon Middle, and last fall I did Simmons Middle in Fleming County. I learned that principals and teachers earn every penny they make. And, that many times the good outweighs the bad. You hear a lot of negative and not enough positive things. Many teachers and principals are doing great work in our schools. One big takeaway for me was the hard work of the special education staff. I visited those classes at both schools, and I think we need to do more work to make it easier for those folks.

Q. Would you recommend that your fellow legislators do the same?

Being in the schools made me realize that if you’re going to work on or pass an education bill, every legislator ought to spend time in the schools. In the legislature you have to be a generalist, but when you are going to focus on education you have got to get out in the schools, otherwise you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

Q. As you know, KSBA encourages local board members and superintendents to reach out to legislators and try to be a resource to them. What advice do you have for ways to make the partnership between the state and local district leaders stronger?

My best advice is the same as my advice on how to understand education better. As a school board member, you need to come to Frankfort for a day and see how the legislative process works. Just like with education, the legislative process isn’t like you think it is. My office is always open, and I’m open to meet with board members and school leaders from my district – it’s good to schedule it – and I can get visitors floor privileges so they can see how the process works. The very best way to see how the process works is to sit in on an education committee meeting. No pass is needed; the public can attend those education committee meetings.

Print This Article
© 2024. KSBA. All Rights Reserved.