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In Conversation With ... Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman

Kentucky School Advocate
February 2020

In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman is an educator who has served as a teacher, administrator, basketball coach and creator of a nonprofit that prepares female students to be leaders on college campuses. Just a month into her term, she discusses the administration’s goals for education in Kentucky.

Q: You were a teacher and an administrator before you decided to run for lieutenant governor. What made you decide to run?

A. I have always been an advocate from the classroom. I was a civics teacher, so I tried to walk the walk. I wanted my students to be active members of their communities, get involved and find their passion, so I worked hard to demonstrate what that looked like. In doing so, I got a lot of attention from officeholders because they respected the message that I carried for our students. One of those officeholders was Andy Beshear, who was attorney general at the time. He reached out and started the conversation about us running together. The governor and I have had a great relationship. Even though we have different professional experiences – he’s an attorney and I’m an educator – we have similar views. Our different perspectives, I think, were helpful in examining issues from every angle.

Q. It’s interesting that you came up on his radar. You probably didn’t see the opportunity to run for office coming?

A. I did not. We joke that when I got the call, I told my husband, “I think Andy’s going to run for governor, and he’s going to ask me to have a fundraiser.” Andy still laughs about that.

Q. When you did decide to run, was it hard to leave your school?

A. It was. My last role was assistant principal at Nelson County High School. I can’t say enough good things about the people that I worked with. The hardest part was leaving the kids, to be honest with you. That’s who we invest in every day, so I do miss seeing those kids and helping them find their way. But the opportunity to impact public education and kids across Kentucky is one I couldn’t pass up.

Q. Your father was also involved in education as a school board member for Burgin Independent, and he served in the state legislature. Was he a major influence on you?

A. Absolutely. Watching him firsthand showed me what it meant to give back, and to serve, especially in the difficult role of a school board member. A lot of folks probably don’t think that is a difficult spot to be in, but school board members have to make a lot of hard decisions. It’s personal, because you probably have kids that go to school or have friends with children in the district.

Q. What about his time as a legislator?

A. Watching him serve in the legislature and do what he believed was right, whether it was popular or not with his own party or the opposition party, taught me a lot about what it meant to be a statesman and not just an elected official.

Q: Educators were very vocal and supportive of the ticket. Do you think their support is the reason you and Governor Beshear are in office?

A. We couldn’t have done it without them. I would offer up several reasons why we are where we are, and one is Andy’s leadership during the campaign. He was a disciplined candidate, and he was able to lead our ticket, promise stability and return value to public education. Without that leadership and the support of the educational community, I don’t think we would be where we are today. It took a village. I’ve never seen educators as engaged in an election as I did in 2019. That made me very happy.

As a side note, I’m a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky in educational leadership. I have finished my coursework, but I’ve got to write my dissertation. I picked my dissertation topic in 2016. It is about the political advocacy leadership of school leaders. I kind of got to live the experiment.

Q: You’re the first lieutenant governor in quite some time to have a dual role. You will also be secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. What appeals to you about the dual role?

A. Education was at the forefront of our campaign and was foundational to our goals. It’s also foundational to building up Kentucky. The lieutenant governor’s office is what you and the governor agree for it to be. From the beginning, I told the governor, “I don’t want to leave my role in education if you don’t see me having an active role in the administration.” He said, “I wouldn’t be talking to you if I didn't think you were going to be an active lieutenant governor.”

Q: Do you have specific goals you hope to accomplish?

A. Yes, initially I would say I want the cabinet to reflect what we want the state of Kentucky to look like and that is cradle-to-career focus. The biggest barrier I have seen in education and workforce development is that there are so many silos. We have to shatter them, because we all have to be partners in making sure that we don’t lose kids in those transitions.

Q. Can you be a little more specific?

A. Yes. I can in terms of the phases of education. I call them the four Es of educational workforce and they are critical to building up education in our workforce. They are early childhood, which we want to expand across Kentucky. Most people don't connect early childhood with workforce development, but it is the first building block. We want to make sure that in middle school, we give students exposure to the career opportunities in their communities. So many students don’t start thinking about the career opportunities until, maybe, they’re upon them. Then we build on that in high school with experience. We want to give our kids real world workforce training experiences, with the pathways that we’re building. Then with post-secondary, kids get their expertise. Again, that looks different for different people, from apprenticeship programs to higher education. 

Q. Obviously, school boards will be involved?

A. Yes, because elected officials at the local level can be our partners in making sure that this is possible. I don’t doubt for one minute that every school board member across Kentucky would agree with these things. We have to work to give them the resources to make that happen.

Q. What has surprised you so far about governing?

A. I know that a lot of disagreement comes with politics, and we tend to focus on the negative. But I’ll be honest, the folks that care about education, on both sides of the aisle, in both chambers, in both branches of government, we all are working toward the same goal. We might see the path a bit differently, but I believe we’re working toward the same goal. We just have to make sure that where we disagree, we do it in a civil way. And we do it so that it doesn’t prevent us from coming back to the table to work on other issues together. That’s been a pleasant surprise. 

Q. You’re also a nonvoting member of the Kentucky Board of Education, which will select a new education commissioner. What do you think the board is looking for in a commissioner? 
 
A. If you’ve read about board members, you know they are impressive people. All of us care deeply about public education, it’s changed our lives in some way, and we’re committed and invested in it. We want to hire a commissioner who values public education in the same way we do. We’ve got to have somebody who can unite us around this common cause, which is to make sure our kids have every opportunity we can give them. We are the first administration that has put an active teacher on the board of education as a nonvoting member. I think it is important to give voice to those who are working with our kids every day.

Q: Where do you hope we’ll be in four years as far as education because of this administration?

A. I can promise you that value and respect will be restored. Education will be at the center of every policy that we promote out of the governor’s office, because it is the foundation of every challenge that we face and every success that we can experience. So, changing the tone, and restoring dignity and respect to the profession will be monumental in moving policy forward. When we have a new commissioner, we will have a new vision for K-12, but we have an amazing community of early childhood educators and postsecondary leaders who are also going to be involved in this conversation. 

Q: So, it’ll be a bigger conversation?

A. It will be much bigger and that’s very much needed. I think the most important thing I can tell you about the conversation is that educators will be a part of it.
 
Photo: Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who also serves as a non-voting member of the Kentucky Board of Education, speaks to reporters after a KBE meeting. 

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