Progress stalled, state needs revenue to invest in education

The early work of the Prichard Committee was marked by a shared sentiment: “We were mad as hell and we weren’t going to take it anymore.”

Citizen advocates were mad because Kentucky was at the bottom of national education rankings and determined that we do better.

Now, Kentucky is in the middle of the national rankings and we still know we can do better. The question now, asked recently by a veteran member, is: “Are we still mad and do we need to be madder?”

While we rank eighth nationally in fourth-grade reading, we leave 44 percent of third graders short of proficiency levels needed to move from learning to read to reading to learn.

We rank 39th nationally in eighth-grade mathematics with only 49 percent of students reaching proficiency.

Our high-school graduation rate has increased to 90 percent, in the top 10 nationally. But only 66 percent of those students are college and career ready, resulting in a “ready graduation” rate of 59 percent.

Once lauded for our commitment to preschool, Kentucky now ranks 40th nationally for participation in pre-K, and only 51 percent of entering kindergarteners are considered ready for success.

When it comes to post-secondary education, Kentucky has work to do to reach the state’s goal of 60 percent attainment, up from the current 45 percent. This is made particularly critical by estimates showing the majority of family-sustaining wage jobs in the future will require some type of post-secondary education.

Our move from the bottom of national rankings to the middle in the last generation is a tribute to state policies that ensured high expectations for all students and tax changes that led to at least $500 million in new investments, helping both increase and level school funding across the state.

While we still, thankfully, commit to ambitious education goals, our K-12 state and local spending combined remains in the bottom quarter of the nation, ranking 39th. Similarly, state funding for higher education has been cut by nearly 20 percent over the last decade with dramatic shifts in costs to students through higher tuition. This, at the same time a post-secondary credential is critical for success.

If that’s not enough, consider lost revenue to the state because of less than desirable education outcomes. Research by Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek finds that lifting all Kentucky students to the basic level on NAEP could add $335 billion to the state’s economy.

Policymakers just renewed their commitment to ambitious goals as reflected in the recent development of a new K-12 accountability model and performance-based funding for post-secondary institutions. But we should remain mindful of what has gone before. As a committee member recently pointed out: “We set ambitious goals, but whenever we near the deadline and realize we aren’t going to meet our goals, we change them.”

We must be willing to commit to ambitious goals and pursue them with investments and innovations that yield positive, measurable results for every student. This means adequate and equitable funding at all levels of education with a specific near-term focus on:

▪  Ensuring all students reach proficiency in math and reading by the end of third grade by expanding access to high-quality early childhood experiences, and ensuring high expectations and adequate supports in the early elementary years.

▪  Radically transforming high school to a post-secondary pipeline to ensure a meaningful high school diploma and seamless transition by investing in relevant and rigorous career pathways, high-quality dual credit, skill mastery through deeper learning, and the promise of an affordable post-secondary education.

▪  Supporting teaching excellence by attracting and retaining the highest quality teachers with total compensation competitive with private sector professions; ensuring career ladders for those choosing to stay in the field; and investing in professional development that affords teachers access to time and talent necessary to continually fine tune their craft.

Legislators face a difficult budget session this year. Pension liabilities coupled with tax revenues below projections have resulted in a crisis that must lead to deliberations about revenue-producing tax reform critical for investments in the resource that matters most — our human capital.

We all have a role in building thepolitical will to make difficult decisions that can no longer be avoided. We need courage from policymakers and bold, sustained engagement from citizens at the state and local level, to realize educational excellence and a commitment to accountability on behalf of each and every student.

With increased investments, 21st century innovations and renewed citizen engagement, Kentucky can regain momentum toward becoming a national leader in education.

<em>This column was corrected to show only 49 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in mathematics.</em>

Brigitte Blom Ramsey is executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.