Protect Ky.’s education gains

It’s an easy throwaway line, one we’ve probably been guilty of using ourselves. But Kentucky no longer trails the nation in education.

Yes, we remain near or at the bottom on too many health and economic indicators. And if you look at education levels for all ages, including retirees, we lag.

But Kentucky’s millennials and the youngsters now coming through public schools are performing squarely in the middle of the national pack. Granted, the top would be better. But the middle is a satisfyingly far piece from the bottom, which is where we were a mere 25 years ago.

Nowhere are the gains more dramatic or inspiring than in Floyd County, the mountain district that finds itself in a flattering spotlight thanks to a surprise visit by Bill and Melinda Gates.

The Microsoft founder and philanthropist was blown away by the “great teaching” at Betsy Layne High School and the district’s 91 percent graduation rate, 10 points higher than the national average.

Across Kentucky, youngsters are graduating from high school at above the national rate and going on to enroll in college at about the national rate.

Our fourth- and eighth-graders outperform their peers nationally in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation’s report card. (They need to improve in math.)

Kentucky is one of only eight states that get a better return on investment than would be expected considering obstacles such as poverty, parental education levels, health and a large rural population, according to a new analysis by Michael Childress at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The analysis compares NAEP scores with education spending.

It’s important to remember how Kentucky pulled itself out of the nation’s cellar, as lawmakers and Gov. Matt Bevin consider changes in education.

Floyd County’s turnaround required both state-level accountability — the once-failing district was under state control for years — and local effort.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and Senate Bill 1 in 2009 supported high-level teaching, learning and assessment and a rich curriculum.

The one-cent sales tax increase that came with KERA raised education spending overall and helped equalize funding between poor and richer districts. The Higher Education Reform Act of 1997 pumped new money into higher education and produced an increase in the college-going rate; we are now losing ground on that measure, probably because tuition is prohibitive for too many Kentuckians.

The struggle for control of the House recently found House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover blaming Democrats for, among other things, “why Kentucky is near the bottom when it comes to education.”

We’re not suggesting that Kentucky can rest on its laurels — far from it when other states are aggressively investing in education while Kentucky is cutting.

But given the record of success — success that both parties can claim — changes should be thoughtful and based on evidence, not motivated by political ideology or the heat of partisan battle.