More than just funding needed to ensure equity, achievement in schools

Commissioner Wayne D. Lewis
Commissioner Wayne D. Lewis

I have had the honor and privilege of leading the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) for over a year now. I had worked with KDE and the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) prior to my appointment, so I knew of much of the important work and initiatives underway. As commissioner, my respect for the leaders at KDE and in schools and districts across the state has only grown. Be assured that passionate, talented, generous education professionals across Kentucky work tirelessly to provide support and high quality learning experiences every single day.

Prior to coming to KDE, I also was aware that our public education system faces significant financial challenges. Undoubtedly, limited resources in key areas and in some regions of the state are hindering our ability to provide the type of experiences our children deserve.

One example of financial constraints is in the area of career and technical education (CTE). Creating and maintaining a comprehensive system where every student has access to CTE programs that equip them for postsecondary and workforce success will require significant investment by the state, local communities and the private sector.

The Kentucky General Assembly and the governor recently have taken major steps toward these goals; including the creation of the Work Ready Skills Initiative, the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship and the Dual Credit Scholarship. But ensuring these learning opportunities for all Kentucky students will require additional resource allocation. This is one of several areas where additional investment will be necessary.

While it is important that we address our funding challenges in public education, I am deeply concerned that much of the dialogue has been largely limited to just a funding conversation. The reality of our situation, however, is that achieving KDE and KBE’s shared vision of ensuring that each and every student, regardless of background and characteristics, is empowered and equipped to pursue a successful future, will take much more than funding. Some policy and practice issues foundational to equity and achievement are related to funding, and other issues are independent of funding. Consider a few examples.

First, it is important to note that state and federal funding for public education comes to the local school district. At the district level, there remains pretty wide variation in per pupil spending across Kentucky school districts. Those disparities are largely a function of differences in property wealth and local revenue at the district level.

In addition to these funding disparities between school districts, attention should be given to the disparities within school districts. Although the state and federal government provide funding to school districts in most instances, decisions about the allocation of resources within a district, including across schools, are primarily made at the local district level.

Ensuring equitable opportunities for each and every student will require local school boards and superintendents to ensure that funds are being equitably allocated within school districts, in a manner that targets resources where they are most needed, often with our most vulnerable students. Simply increasing funding for public schools will not address these fundamental inequities in some school districts.

The most important aspect of what we do in public education centers on what happens in classrooms. While support services for students are critically important, especially for many disadvantaged students, teaching and learning is the core business of schools.

There is no more important element to providing high quality learning experiences for students than ensuring all students have a high quality and effective teacher. I wish I could tell you that every Kentucky student has access to an effective teacher, but we all know that is simply not true. What is even more unfortunate, in Kentucky and beyond, it is most often low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities who are less likely to have access to experienced, highly skilled, effective teachers. Unfortunately, in classrooms across Kentucky, too many of our students are served by long-term substitute teachers or teachers who lack the knowledge, skills, experience, disposition or willingness to meet their academic needs.

In Kentucky, as across the U.S., with exceptions of course, our more experienced, more effective teachers tend to more often serve middle income and affluent white students. Low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities are less likely than their more affluent, white and typical peers to have access to more experienced teachers. Teachers with less classroom experience and less formal training are often placed in the most challenging classrooms, schools and neighborhoods; and not surprising, those teachers are more likely to exit schools than their more experienced, more skilled counterparts for a new job or career.

Who would think putting our least experienced teachers in the most challenging classrooms, often with very little support, is a promising practice for building new teacher capacity and retaining new teachers in the profession? Who would argue that such practice or decision-making is in the best interest of students? Why do so many adults remain silent about such practices when we know students are hurt as a result?

By policy, practices or constraints of collective bargaining agreements, we ensure that our most vulnerable children are less likely to have high quality teachers, when their need is the greatest. I contend that our unwillingness, and even resistance, to ensuring that children with the greatest need have the same opportunity as their more privileged peers to have an effective teacher is the greatest educational equity policy failure of our time. Simply increasing funding for public education will not address that failure.

All of our work at the Kentucky Department of Education is aimed at ensuring that each and every Kentucky student is empowered and equipped to pursue a successful future. Our team works tirelessly with administrators, educators, parents and communities to see this vision fulfilled.

Our policy agenda has and will continue to include advocating for additional strategic investment in public education. However, we know Kentucky public schools well enough to know that our challenges include, but go well beyond, funding


  1. Commissioner Lewis,

    While I agree there are many issues that go beyond funding for public education schools, I struggle to find the heart of the issue being an unqualified teacher. If this be the case, then why do we have so many avenues for “teachers” who do not have the proper certification to work in our school systems, to receive employment within our schools. A major concern of public education, is the behaviors of students which are permitted to go on within the classrooms. How can students learn when students are permitted to be disrespectful to one another and openly disrespectful to their teachers. Also, how can teachers instruct their students when students seem to come to class with more and more psychological issues.

    I have taught for 9 years. I have taught in inner city schools for four and in a rural school system for 5 years. Inappropriate behaviors within the classroom do not have a specific area in which they are found. These behaviors are being found in many classrooms across Kentucky. Teachers are instructing 20 to 3o students in a class period. Students who qualify for additional services under IEP and 504 labels are kept below the 10% state requirement, which means approximately 5 students or less will qualify for services, while 10 additional kids will need reading or math intervention with the remaining students needing on-grade level instruction or enrichment. The teacher will have the students for a 5o minute class and during this period of instructional time the teacher is supposed to meet all of these needs. Not including the needs of the students who are at different levels of RTI. I worked at one of Kentucky’s lowest performing schools and the solution to the low performance scores was the teachers were at fault and we were going to use “Scripted” instruction, which would ensure all teachers were teaching the same way. With those programs in place, our school dropped to the bottom of the state.

    My point is, I do not believe the teachers are at fault for the low performing scores. When we begin to point fingers at who is at fault, is the moment we stop working together as a team. I will admit we do have teachers who work well below the performance envelope or those who are burnt out, but we have professionals in all areas, including those in the elected official department who have lost focus on their job duties. But to say our lowest performing schools are performing low because of the lack of qualified teachers is wrong. I worked there and have seen first-hand the additional constraints these teachers face on a day to day basis. Not only are the teachers devoted to their students, but their parents are as well. The actual cause of low performing schools is over populated classrooms and students struggling with psychological issues a teacher is not certified to handle nor should be expected to serve. We have individuals who are certified to service these individuals. Teachers in our lowest performing schools have more teacher turn over and more restrictions placed on them. However, where is the data that shows consistent improvement for these schools with these mandated restraints. Looking at these schools ‘ performance ratings, I see very minimum growth even after the state regulations have been put into place. It seems the low performing schools have their hands smacked on a year-to-year basis and then nothing is stated about the improvement or continued low-performance after the state regulations have been put in place.

    Maybe the answer is to provide generational support within a community to ensure the entire community grows together. A community filled with minds who are invested in one another will not only grow, but will support each other in personal growth. When we begin to turn a community against one another and lay blame for the underperforming schools is the moment communities fail. I know there is research out their which suggests class size has nothing to do with student performance, but having taught with larger class sizes I can tell you the teachers are personally outnumbered. Also, openly labeling students is another constraint of our school systems. Sure we have to identify who needs what services, but the way we do it is wrong. Every student is supposed to receive the educational supports they need, but never are they supposed to be looked down upon because they need a certain service.

    Finally, my ultimate concern is centered around reading and writing. As educators we know deficits in reading can be seen in student writing. Reading gains can only be made with student practice. Student practice can only occur with personal motivation or through adult supervision. If we do not provide teachers and students with the necessary resources (books) and opportunities (time) to engage in real reading situations, then our students abilities to perform in all areas will dwindle over time. If our media and elected officials would surround education with a trend of positive light and growing support, our students will begin to seek learning on their own.

    As stated before, we do have some educators who should not be in the classroom, but we also have other commonwealth employees and some elected officials who should not be in their positions. Unfortunately, unmotivated employees will always be a part of the workforce. It is up to our leaders to ensure they do not diminish the return of our highly motivated employees. I am certain if you take a closer look at our low performing school districts you will find teachers who have odds stacked against them, but are constantly putting in the time, personal money, and hours to make it happen for as many of their students as possible. You should spend some significant time observing and documenting day to day issues which occur in these school systems. It is easy to look down your nose at these low-performing schools, but these low-performing schools have the highest populations of needy students attending their facilities and we also need to ensure their student growth is shown. Our state is documenting the number of proficient/distinguished students, per grade level, but how many of those students were already proficient/distinguished before the instructional year began? How many of those students made personal growth? How many have had instruction planned to meet their personal interests? Personally, only 58% of my students made growth this school year. Approximately, 72% will be proficient/ distinguished on KPREP, if NWEA (MAP) testing predicts correctly. And this group of students have moved from only 44% being proficient or distinguished (at the 5th grade level) to approximately 68% proficient/distinguished in two years (currently 7th grade).

    Valuing education as a community is the BEST solution we can provide and not just a performance label, rather focusing on personal growth made by each student. I am reflecting on my own instruction this past year and making plans to ensure each of my students grows the next year. I have to answer for the 42% of 7th graders and 10% of my 6th graders who didn’t make growth this past year. But I have individual plans for each of these kiddos, have been researching books I feel each of these kids will be interested in reading, working on professional development to ensure I can provide efficient RTI instruction for them, and have enrolled in higher education for myself. I’m not pointing the finger at teachers they had before and making excuses why I can’t do my job. I am answering for my mistakes and making necessary changes. I am hoping to show my students that change starts with yourself.

    Maybe that’s what we need to do as a state. Model how change occurs, with oneself.