Twenty-five years ago Kentuckians did something unprecedented in public education. They put aside their political differences, partisan bickering and personal agendas and did what was right for Kentucky’s kids.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act, implemented in 1990, was one of the most ambitious and influential education reforms attempted by any state. It resulted in major progress for our students and began Kentucky’s climb in national educational rankings after years of holding steady at the bottom.
Six years ago, Kentuckians came together again and coalesced around a common vision for student success — a commitment to ensure all students graduated ready to succeed after high school. Senate Bill 1 (2009) passed the General Assembly with an overwhelming majority.
That commitment has paid off. Kentucky’s graduation rate is among the highest in the nation. The commonwealth’s students outperform the nation at most levels in reading, math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Significantly, more students are graduating prepared to pursue their career and college dreams.
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Today, Kentucky has a great opportunity to build on its past reform efforts with the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA shifts much of the oversight and responsibility for schools from the federal government to the state — including how accountability is determined and how to define and improve low-performing schools.
Kentuckians pride themselves on their resilience, independence and self-determination, and ESSA offers just that. It offers the chance to collaborate and build on our accomplishments of the past 25 years. Kentucky’s new Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt has seized on this and recently announced he will host town-hall meetings around the state to begin discussing how best to move our schools forward.
In the midst of this opportunity, a new Senate Bill 1 has been introduced. Its sponsors claim it will be fairer to schools, increase educator and public input on the state’s accountability system and reduce political influence.
With due respect to the sponsors, it won’t — and I fear it would undercut years of hard-fought, educator-led school progress. it would strip the state of its ability to assist low-performing schools by leaving them without the assistance and expertise of state educators who have proven they can help such schools succeed. More troubling is language that would allow lower expectations for students in schools with high percentages of low-income or minority students.
I agree with the bill’s sponsor that we should ask educators what is happening in their schools. But we should do more than that — we should listen to what they say, include them in the work, encourage their feedback and make changes based on what works and doesn’t work.
The Kentucky Board of Education and the Kentucky Department of Education have a proud history and proven track record of doing all of the above. Hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers and educators have been active participants in reform efforts. They have been vocal supporters of this work and are predominately opposed to the current Senate bill.
This bill would not encourage teacher involvement in decisions, but rather leave major decisions to a committee made up of lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees. Such a move would turn back the clock to a time when decisions about what goes on in classrooms were determined by political winds and whims, not by what is in the best interest of children. The bipartisan authors of KERA were careful to insulate schools and districts from such partisan ideology of the day, a decision that has served Kentucky schools well and set us apart from other states.
Lastly, any decisions that affect schools and students need to be made thoughtfully. Kentucky will be better served if it takes this year to gather input from citizens before enacting any needed legislation that will allow it to take full advantage of the federal reform’s promise. That will ensure a truly collaborative process that involves all voices, gives ample time for consideration and compromise, and continues to do right by Kentucky’s kids.
Roger L. Marcum is chair of the Kentucky Board of Education.