Many educators across Kentucky have harbored the whispering hope that our new governor will positively affect education, or even catalyze some important policy changes.
The recent debate at Centre College, with its focus on education issues, proved that to be more than just a possibility.
Everything in education, from vocational training and college readiness to equity and early childhood education, is centered around students' needs in order to have a successful future. But are these two candidates really poised to meet those needs?
Kentucky should promise high school graduates that, at the end of high school, they will be equipped to either begin a vocational training program or work in an adequately paid career. Currently, many jobs in the advanced manufacturing and information technology sectors go unfilled. Our next governor has to do more to help create an employee supply chain from high school to technical school.
Both candidates adamantly claim that they are prepared to address the need for more vocational training. During the debate, Bevin expressed his hope that someday soon, governors of other states will wonder why their young people are moving to Kentucky to find jobs. Conway wants to "work with KCTC to provide vocational training to get (IT and advance manufacturing) jobs filled."
It's not enough to prepare our students for careers; we must also prepare them to perform well in a higher education setting. When educators talk about college readiness, they're often referencing benchmarks on standardized tests, but college readiness means understanding how to apply for schools and scholarships, knowing how to get through college and being able to pay for it.
Helping students get to and through college begins with high standards for learning. Bevin prefers a model in which students are prepared with standards controlled and created by "local school boards, teachers, and parents." While that might prepare them for success in their local communities, in some ways it robs them of the opportunity to compete in an ever-more global economy.
Conway pointed out that it would cost an estimated $35 million to "throw the baby out with the bath water" and write new standards.
The adoption of the Kentucky Core Academic Standards raised the bar for every student, and their strength lies not just in their focus, coherence and rigor, but the way in which teachers believe in them. Conway acknowledged that students' college and career readiness has doubled and our high school graduation rate has increased under the standard.
It will take more than high standards to level the playing field for our state's most vulnerable students. Closing gaps in achievement and opportunity require highly qualified teachers who are fairly compensated. The current pension uncertainty is undoubtedly correlated with declining teacher retention — an issue that disproportionately affects low-income and minority students, along with those with special needs.
Conway and Bevin agreed that there's a "legal and moral obligation" to pay current retirees and teachers the pensions promised, though Conway did not agree with Bevin's plan to move new teachers to a defined contribution plan.
The problem is that defined contribution plans were created to be supplements, not substitutes, for pensions. Without the promise of a stable financial future, it will be nearly impossible to attract high-quality teachers to schools in Kentucky.
Postsecondary success begins in the preschool classroom, and Conway's opening remarks acknowledged the importance of early childhood education. Although Bevin made no comment about early childhood education in this debate, the importance of preschool programs like Head Start cannot be overstated. If our next governor genuinely cares about the lifelong success of our students, especially our most vulnerable ones, he must lead our state to invest in education as early as possible.
Students need the opportunity to live in a state that is well governed, with an economy that will provide them access to a well-paying job and an affordable college system. All students deserve the chance to be productive citizens. Since they can't vote Nov. 3, the citizens of Kentucky must advocate for them.