New Kentucky fund will support education innovation across the state

FRANKFORT — A new non-profit fund will help support education in Kentucky by funding innovative programs that could increase the number of students graduating from high school ready for college or careers.

The private Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky would distribute money on two levels, according to an announcement Monday. It would financially support large educational programs with potential statewide impact, but also be able to underwrite innovative local projects developed by school districts or teachers.

Ultimately, officials said, the aim is to establish a "venture capital pool" to help Kentucky educators who want to try new ideas, but lack financial support, and then help sustain programs that work.

The fund will start by helping the state Department of Education administer two recent educational grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation worth a total of almost $3 million. But it also will solicit private foundations and other organizations nationwide for help in supporting innovative educational efforts, said Paducah businessman Billy Harper, board chairman of the new fund.

"This is the next step in moving education forward in Kentucky," Harper said. "We cannot catch up with the rest of the world by doing what we've always done."

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who will be an ex-officio board member, said private groups like the new fund probably will become increasingly involved in education because state government funding for education remains tight.

"When you can't provide state funds for the basics, where are you going to get the money," Holliday said. "I don't see additional money coming into education because of various issues. And until we can get more revenue ... they (private groups) will have to step up."

The Kentucky fund is patterned after the Colorado Legacy Foundation, which was formed to support education innovation about five years ago.

The new fund's board will include officials from government, business and education: Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson; Kentucky Chamber of Commerce CEO David Adkisson; AT&T Kentucky CEO Mary Pat Regan; Booth Energy CEO Jim Booth; former University of Kentucky president Lee Todd; United Way of the Bluegrass chairman Bill Farmer; state House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway; and state Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green.

Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, will be vice chairman.

Prichard Committee Deputy Executive Director Cindy Heine said Monday that the new fund will play a key role in promoting new educational initiatives in Kentucky.

"When a teacher has a promising new idea, or when a superintendent is convinced that a new approach could reap big rewards, additional support from an outside entity may make the difference between success ... and the possibility that those ideas would die on the vine," Heine said.

Harper stressed that the new foundation will operate as a funding organization, not an educational advocacy group.

"Our role is to help develop ideas, put them into action, and be totally transparent about our actions," he said.

The two Gates Foundation grants that the new fund will help administer are specifically intended to help Kentucky teachers share new ideas, or collaborate on student assignments in "core" subject areas. But in the longer term, the fund will try to identify and support other innovations that could boost education across the state, officials said.

As examples, organizers cited two innovations that are under way: the Danville Independent Schools' efforts to give students more relevant and engaging classroom experiences, and the Eminence Independent Schools' drive for more personalized instruction, including allowing students to attend college classes.