Brigitte Blom Ramsey, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence Executive Director
LEXINGTON, Ky. – 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 ranked 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 current question, as asked by a veteran member recently, is: “Are we still mad and do we need to be madder?”
- While we rank 8th nationally in 4th 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 8th grade mathematics with only 49 percent of students reaching proficiency.
- Our high school graduation rate has increased to 90 percent, ranking 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 postsecondary 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 postsecondary 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 postsecondary 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 Dr. 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 commitment to ambitious goals as reflected in the recent development of a new K-12 accountability model and performance-based funding for postsecondary 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 not only to commit to ambitious goals but to 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 the high school to postsecondary pipeline to ensure a meaningful high school diploma and seamless transition to postsecondary by investing in relevant and rigorous career pathways, high-quality dual credit, 21st century skill mastery through deeper learning, and the promise of an affordable postsecondary education.
- Support for 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 their entire career; 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 in Frankfort 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 to play in building the public and political 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 its momentum toward becoming a national leader in education.
Brigitte Blom Ramsey is the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, non-partisan citizens’ group comprised of volunteer civic and business leaders from across Kentucky working to improve education for Kentuckians of all ages since 1983.