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Kerri Schelling

Betting on public education

Kentucky School Advocate
May 2023

By Kerri Schelling
KSBA Executive Director

It’s a safe bet to say that on the first Saturday in May, all eyes are on the Commonwealth as the majesty of the Kentucky Derby captures the world’s attention. Dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the tradition predates the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Professional Golfers’ Association and even Major League Baseball. Amid the excitement of choosing the right hat – and the right horse – I find myself thinking about another “race” in Kentucky that we run every day. One with just as much tradition and with stakes that are even higher: the race to ensure that every Kentuckian has the opportunity to receive a world-class public education.

While certain similarities between the two industries come to mind (for example, both are highly regulated), the goal of public education remains singularly impressive: to get every participant across the finish line – regardless of their pedigrees or past performances.

Each year, the Derby favorites get the most airtime leading up to the race. And while there are often good reasons for such preferences, less than a third of past derby winners were the odds-on favorites to win. One has to appreciate all the factors at play, seen and unseen.

In 1913, a horse by the name of Donerail claimed the Derby’s rose garland despite entering the race with 91-1 odds, making that year the biggest longshot victory in Derby history. We often forget that odds are simply a result of how much the public is betting on a horse to win. Or perhaps a factor of how much the public wants the horse to succeed. The fact is the betting odds are not a foolproof indicator of success – for horses or students.

On Derby day, the public generally isn’t watching all the training taking place leading up to the race. Or seeing the teams of people preparing the horse and jockey for the months and years prior. The public has typically never entered the stable, sat in the meetings, or as closely studied the science of the sport. The same can be said for our schools.

Lately the public discourse from pundits and policymakers alike about our public schools has been disheartening. I’ve heard people undermine our local decision makers, belittle our administrators and vilify our educators, showing they view our system of common schools as a long shot – and one that isn’t worthy of their full support.

Those same folks are not in the classrooms, the cafeterias or the counselors’ offices. They haven’t weighed data like a school board. They haven’t managed a district like a superintendent. On top of everything else they must do, our schools are shouldered with changing the negative perception that a growing number of misinformed people have about the transformative efforts of public education. We must challenge our legislators and our communities to value our public schools for what they are: critical partners to ensure the success and wellbeing of our children.

In horse racing, the performance of the horse is largely determined by genetics, training and the jockey’s ability to guide the horse during the race. In public education, a student’s performance is influenced by a variety of factors, including his or her background, home life, access to resources, and the quality of teachers and curriculum. A mix of factors within and beyond our control. Add in historic educator and staff shortages, a pandemic, a mental health crisis and state funding that has long fallen behind inflation and it feels as though the odds are stacked against us. But long odds didn’t matter to Donerail 110 years ago. Long odds didn’t keep Rich Strike out of the winner’s circle at the 2022 Derby. And long odds have never stopped public education because success for every student is simply too important.

With all that our Commonwealth stands to gain, will Kentucky support our public schools down the stretch?

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