Pushing forward

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Stephen Pruitt

January is a time of new beginnings and taking stock. That’s why I want to use my column this month to share my thoughts on where we stand in K-12 education in Kentucky.

During the past year, we have set the stage for real improvement in public education and decreasing the achievement gap by half by 2030. In tandem with Senate Bill 1 (2017) and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, we have restructured our accountability system to push schools to move beyond testing as the primary measure of their success. The new system also encourages schools and districts to focus on opportunity and access for all children, as well as meeting the needs of the whole child.

We have established the processes and regulations that will lead to charter schools and more options for our students. We also have restructured our course codes with a focus on equity to ensure that all students taking a specific class have the opportunity to learn the same content.

This is a good start and 2018 holds the potential for even more foundational changes that will lead to a stronger and more effective system of public education in Kentucky. However, we are at a pivotal point in the Commonwealth.

State budget shortfalls have led to critical funding cuts for our schools during a time when they are already doing more with less. In addition, many educators are anxious about their future as lawmakers work to find an acceptable solution for our financially troubled retirement systems.

Yes, it’s a challenging time, but we cannot stop striving for excellence.

Last month, the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) approved its budget and legislative priorities for the 2018 session of the General Assembly. While KBE members recognize the difficult financial situation facing the Commonwealth, they stand firm in their commitment to push student learning forward. I applaud their resolve. We cannot stop striving to provide the best education possible for all of the Commonwealth’s 650,000 public school children. The futures of these children will not wait for better financial times, nor should we make them wait for our best educational efforts.

Our primary focus is to maintain current appropriated funding levels for K-12 education and increase funding for several critical programs, including full reimbursement of local district pupil transportation costs, expenditures required by Senate Bill 1 (2017), and the cost of full-day kindergarten. The board also is requesting the legislature establish a permanent funding formula for charter schools.

Since students can’t learn if they aren’t at school, transportation is a big issue that we must address. Keeping buses and drivers on the road is an expense for which districts have been bearing more and more of the cost. In 2005, the state reimbursed districts for 96 percent of the cost of their transportation programs. In 2017, districts were reimbursed for just 62 percent of their transportation costs. The extra expense districts have been bearing takes away money that could be used to enrich the educational experience of students in the classroom.

It also is time for us to address the expense of the changes brought about by Senate Bill 1 (2017). The law was designed to help ensure Kentucky’s students are prepared and transition ready throughout their educational career. It calls for the revision of academic standards and the creation of standards in areas where there are none. This requires the creation of new test items and the alignment of all assessments to the standards that are taught.

SB1 also calls for giving a college admissions exam to students in grade 10 in addition to grade 11, as is currently the practice. It requires KDE to pay for secondary students earning a valid industry certification. While legislated with the benefit to students in mind, all of these initiatives cost money.

Funding full-day kindergarten, rather than a half-day program as is currently the case, is also vital to our children’s progress. Many of our districts have made full-day kindergarten a priority, a decision that is well founded. Children who attend full-day programs show better attendance in kindergarten and throughout the primary grades. Furthermore, studies have shown that children in full-day kindergarten programs score higher on standardized tests, have higher classroom grades and make faster gains on measures of language and literacy skills.

While some districts are able to raise enough local funding to offer full-day kindergarten to their students, lower-wealth districts – whose students particularly need the advantages a full-day kindergarten program can offer – are the least likely to be able to afford it. And even if lower-wealth districts are able to fund full-day kindergarten, it is often at the expense of other programs that children need to be successful.

Yes, Kentucky is facing many challenges during the coming year, but we can overcome them if we all are willing to work together with the single purpose of creating a better tomorrow for Kentucky’s children.

Teachers, you’ve worked too hard and we’ve come too far to turn back now. I ask that you make your voices heard. You see firsthand the impact that resources and policy has on our educational system. Advocate for what is needed. Advocate for your profession. Advocate for future of your students.

Parents, I’m asking you to show your support for public education too. Advocate for your child and on behalf of all children. Get involved. Attend your local school board meetings, run for a school-based decision making council seat or become involved in your local PTA or PTO. Consider a run for the school board in your district. Important decisions are made on the local level; make your voice heard.

And because important changes happen at the state level too, make sure to stay informed about what is going on in the legislature this session and stay in touch with your elected officials to share your comments and factual information about your school.

I want to hear your voice too. Once again this spring, I will be holding a series of town hall meetings. The focus will be high school graduation requirements. Please be sure to attend the one in your area. Dates and locations will be forthcoming. What you say at these town halls directly impacts our priorities at KDE.

Yes, it is likely to be a challenging year for public education in Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep pushing forward. I’m ready. Are you?

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