American Dream denied to poor Ky. kids by Bevin’s budget

Madlyn Lopez and her litte sister, Yaretzi Rathesc, received backpacks filled with school supplies from volunteer Kim Mayes at the YMCA backpack drive in 2016.
Madlyn Lopez and her litte sister, Yaretzi Rathesc, received backpacks filled with school supplies from volunteer Kim Mayes at the YMCA backpack drive in 2016. Herald-Leader file photo

Gov. Matt Bevin was absolutely right last week to draw on the words of a philosopher of the American Revolution to describe the current economic and political circumstances in Kentucky. Quoting Thomas Paine, Bevin prefaced his budget address by saying, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

That famous quote comes from a pamphlet called “The Crisis,” which Paine wrote in 1776. In addition to containing an apt description of our present state, Paine’s essay contains a call to action for all of us and shines a light on the path forward to a better tomorrow.

Paine pointed out that times of crisis and panic, “sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world.”

How we as leaders on a state and local level respond to the litany of crises Bevin outlined in his budget remarks will reveal what we truly value.

Like the governor, I believe in the American Dream. As a child in Wilmington, Del., I lived in abject poverty, facing housing insecurity and food scarcity. My road out ran through the schoolhouse door.

The climb is steeper today. Research demonstrates that it is becoming increasingly difficult for families in the United States to move out of poverty. The American Dream — that each generation is able to achieve more than the generation before — has stalled.

Our lawmakers can enact policies that either exacerbate or ameliorate that reality. We need the collective power of the General Assembly and administration to enact legislation to sow seeds of opportunity in communities gripped by hopelessness and despair.

In his message the governor noted that for too long people in the commonwealth have chosen comforting lies over the unpleasant truth.

I applaud the governor for his efforts to begin the budget conversation by showing us all a worst-case scenario if we are unwilling to address comprehensive tax reform. Although I am encouraged by his recommendation to fully fund the state’s actuarially required contribution for the state employee and teachers’ retirement systems, the recommendations for how to pay for it are untenable. As Bevin himself said, “the reality is we don’t have enough money to meet the obligations that this state has.”

Nearly three decades after the Rose decision that led to comprehensive school reform, our commonwealth is moving farther away from providing an equitable and adequate education for all children. Kentucky’s public schools are already woefully underfunded, and a 62 percent cut to transportation funding that equates to a reduction of $211 per pupil is not a viable solution.

The unpleasant truth is that if we are unwilling to finally step up and overhaul our tax system and modernize our outdated educational funding formula, then we will be left with a budget like the governor drafted. The governor’s proposal cuts direct services to children and fails to make strategic investments that will ensure our children’s future is brighter than their present.

The collective impact of this budget disinvests in education and moves the American Dream farther out of the reach of children living in poverty, children of color, children learning English as a second language, and children with special needs.

At a time when we should be investing in our children and moving closer to equity, we continue to come up short. Economic development and education go hand in hand. Businesses may relocate for tax incentives, but they stay for a highly educated workforce and a pipeline of talented, skilled and creative future employees.

To leaders during the Revolutionary War who questioned whether the timing was right for such an arduous undertaking, Paine wrote, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace; and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.”

The time is now. Our district is committed to partnering with our elected officials to tackle tax reform and the pension crisis in a comprehensive way that puts Kentucky education back on track. We know it can be done, because the men and women of our great commonwealth have done it before.

Elected officials, educators, business and community leaders together crafted the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, leading the nation with a bold plan to transform our schools. When he signed that bipartisan effort into law, then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson remarked, “We have accomplished the impossible.”

Let’s do it again by working together to put the future of Kentucky — our children — first.

Manny Caulk is superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools.