Friday, January 29, 2010

Thoughts on the Budget

As many of you know, the Frankfort “frenzy” is in full swing. Committees are meeting, and bills are being considered.

Perhaps the most intense discussion is happening around the development of a state budget. Governor Beshear delivered a proposed budget, and it was evident that education was one of the top priorities. The Governor filled the revenue gap with proposed monies from limited gaming. The projected revenue was about $780 million over the biennium. Even with projected gaming, an across-the-board 2 percent expenditure reduction was proposed. However, the Governor’s budget did protect the SEEK school funding and even projected small increases over the next two years.

Both the House and Senate leadership have indicated that gaming revenues will not be part of the budget. As with most budget preparations that I have observed over 37 years in education, the choices are very limited. Budget developers can either reduce expenditures, raise revenues to address expenditure requests, redirect existing funds from one program to another or some combination of the previous choices. My prediction is the latter. There will be some revenue enhancement, some reductions and some redirections. Thus, the reason for the frenzy in Frankfort. Every special interest group that receives funding from the state budget will be in Frankfort over the coming weeks pleading their case for full funding.

Of course, superintendents, school boards and the Department of Education are included among the groups seeking support for programs. At the House budget committee this week, I reiterated the top three priorities for education funding. These priorities are based on input from superintendents and associations that work in education. Our priorities are to maintain SEEK funding, restore Flexible Focus Funds and fund implementation of 2009’s Senate Bill 1. The Governor’s budget included maintaining SEEK funding and some funding to implement Senate Bill 1.

The coming weeks will be critical ones for the development of the state budget. I encourage readers to let your representatives know what is important to you and your community with regard to state funding.

As for me, I do agree with one statement that President Barack Obama made in the State of the Union speech this week. “The best anti-poverty program is a world-class education.” I am afraid that reductions in education on the short term could have long-term negative effects for our children and for the economy. For that reason, I will work diligently to maintain education funding and support. I feel confident that all of the members of the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation, also support education and the need to protect this investment in our future.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Charter Schools and Kentucky

As I began working with school districts and teacher associations to develop support for the Kentucky Race to the Top (RTTT) application, I asked them to keep an open mind about charter schools. In most cases, my suggestion was well-received, and most people did keep open minds toward discussion of charter schools and the issues that need to be addressed.

It quickly became apparent to me that we did not have sufficient time to address the charter school issues AND develop a strong Race to the Top application. On December 7, I informed superintendents, teacher leaders and school board chairs that our RTTT application would not include charter schools.

As most of you know, we were able to pass legislation (House Bill 176) to include four turnaround options for low-performing schools, and among those options we did include the ability for a local school board to contract with an Education Management Organization to run a school. This option should help Kentucky with some of the criteria points in the RTTT application.

The question now becomes – What do we do now? The charter school debate has not ended, it has only just begun. My guiding principle with regard to charter schools or any innovation in education is simple. How will the innovation help students learn at higher levels and enable teachers to meet the needs of more students?

The debate moving forward should not be “do we have charter schools or do we not have charter schools.” We should never force ourselves into a corner of either/or. We should avoid the tyranny of OR and focus on the synergy of AND. There are some possible ways that charter school legislation could help improve teaching and learning in Kentucky. That is the solution we should all be looking for, rather than polarizing ourselves into one corner or the other.

The Kentucky Department of Education will be working with legislators and other decision-makers at the state and local levels to engage in a positive and focused discussion on how school boards could utilize some type of charter legislation to enable schools and districts to remove barriers to teaching and learning.

We should be focusing our questions on how a school board could utilize charter legislation to develop innovative programs that focus on mastery and student performance rather than seat time. We should focus the conversations on how school boards could partner with internal and external groups to utilize charter legislation to address the needs of students who are not achieving in traditional settings. We should focus the conversations on what innovations in technology could be utilized in a charter setting to create next-generation schools.

The common theme in all of these questions is the focus on improving teaching and learning with the support of local school boards. My favorite reminder when difficult issues come up is that we need to focus on the children’s needs and not let the adult needs get in the way of our focus. I have every confidence that Kentucky can have this discussion and, in the end, reach agreement on legislation that is in the best interest of the children.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Closing Achievement Gaps

During my first few months in Kentucky, there have been a number of initiatives spurring me, as Commissioner of Education, to act on certain concerns with education. One of these concerns is the persistent achievement gap in student learning. We have revitalized the Commissioner’s Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps Council. The council met this week and had a spirited conversation about the achievement gap in Kentucky. I wanted to highlight a few of the key learning items from the meeting.

What do the data tell us about the achievement gap?

- We learned that student academic success goes down the longer students are in school. In Kentucky and most states, any measure we look at will reveal that, as students progress through school, the average percentage of those proficient in mathematics, reading, social studies, science, satisfaction, discipline and other areas gets worse.
- We learned that we have reading achievement gaps for students with disabilities as high as 40 percent in high school.
- We learned that we have 20- to 30-point achievement gaps for African-American students in reading and math.
- We learned that Kentucky’s achievement gaps are close to the national average.

This issue was addressed by the Kentucky legislature in 2002 through requirements that districts and schools report achievement gaps, set goals to close achievement gaps and develop plans to close the gaps. The question then becomes, if we report the gaps, if we set goals and we develop plans, which schools and districts have actually closed gaps? KDE does have a process to highlight schools that have successfully closed achievement gaps, and last year, we highlighted 23 schools for their great work. However, we do not have a sufficient focus on this issue. We must confront the brutal facts and create a sense of urgency in the Commonwealth to close achievement gaps.

I will be communicating on this issue through many venues -- through our Race to the Top application, Senate Bill 1 deployment plans, the Kentucky Board of Education’s strategic plan and a revised state accountability model, we will be addressing the achievement gap.

Our council will reconvene in March and begin to develop specific recommendations for communication, accountability and sharing best practices. I have asked the council and the KDE staff not to think of this in the abstract. I have asked them to picture a specific child and focus their work on what they would do if that child were one of those who had a significant achievement gap.

The time for talk and planning are fast coming to an end. We have talked and planned for years without major changes in the results. It is now time for a focus on the children and for the future of our Commonwealth, and that focus will need strong leadership from superintendents and principals and strong support for our teachers. I have yet to meet anyone in Kentucky who does not want all children to be successful. The key is providing the support, resources and accountability to ensure all children reach success.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Reflections on the First Week of the Legislative Session

Over the years, as a local superintendent, I spent many hours at the state capitol building, capitol annex and in meetings with legislators. I thought I was very knowledgeable of the legislative process and the politics that surround legislation and funding. However, nothing quite prepared me for the rapid pace of the first week of the Kentucky legislative session.

One of the main reasons for the intense week was that the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) asked for specific legislation to address low-achieving schools. The legislation will enable Kentucky to submit a stronger Race to the Top application for a possible $200 million and ensure Kentucky can access more than $50 million in Title I school improvement grant funds for FY 11-13.

Both the House and Senate have been wonderful to work with as we presented our need for fast-track legislation. The legislation started in the House, and a very informative meeting with the House Education Committee on January 7 led to the bill being passed out of committee and on to the full House for a vote on January 11.

I am most appreciative to the many House members, House leadership and especially Education Committee Chair Carl Rollins for the support. The support would not have happened without the time and energy given by KDE staff, the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the Boone County Teachers Association, the Kentucky Educators Association and superintendents from Jefferson and Boone counties. Also, many of our Kentucky partners that are working with us on the Race to the Top application have been very supportive, and they assisted with informing legislators with the need for this bill.

There were several other unique experiences this week. I attended my first State of the Commonwealth address given by Governor Steve Beshear and attended a reception at the Governor’s Mansion. I was very impressed with the chambers in the capitol. The design and workmanship of the building are very impressive. It is amazing to consider the tools that the workmen had to use when the building was built and the beauty and perfection of the craftsmanship. I think Kentucky has one of the most beautiful capitol buildings and Governor’s Mansions in the nation. During the holiday season, both buildings were especially beautiful with the decorations.

The pace of the week was exhausting, but very exhilarating. I am looking forward to many committee meetings and late-night strategy sessions and watching the legislative process take place. I am lucky to have a tremendous team at KDE to support this work and terrific partners for education that work well together to make a difference for the children of Kentucky.

You can keep up with the elementary and secondary legislation brought forth in the 2010 session by visiting the Legislative Research Commission’s Web site at