The Political Establishment Sides With The Education Establishment
The 2022 Kentucky General Assembly concluded its work last month. The Republican-dominated legislature made record financial investments long desired by the education establishment but failed to pass all but the most modest bills that would further empower Kentucky parents with more choices and stronger voices in their children’s education.
The budget passed by lawmakers and signed by Governor Beshear invests billions of general fund dollars into Kentucky schools for each of the next two years. That investment includes $130 million to fund full-day kindergarten classrooms (almost all districts already provide full-day kindergarten but pay for half of it from local funds). The budget also includes $274 million in transportation funds, another major expense that local districts have been subsidizing themselves for years. Both of these provisions have been top priorities for educators since at least my own years of service on the Kentucky Board of Education (2016-2019).
The budget also fully funded the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System, allocating more than $2 billion over the biennium, far more than the actuarial amount required by law, and raised the base state education funding allotment to a record level of $4,100 per pupil per year next year and then $4,200 per pupil the following year. Millions and millions of dollars of new funds were approved for career and technical education, gifted and talented programs, early learning, and Family Resource-Youth Service Centers (FRYSC).
The left-leaning education establishment has long (and falsely) painted the Republican majority in the General Assembly as anti-education meanies, and in their typical fashion, I did not see much public gratitude to lawmakers for their lavish beneficence. In fact, some teachers took to social media to lambaste lawmakers for not also mandating a teacher salary increase like they provided for state employees.
These educators are barking up the wrong tree. The many millions of dollars local districts will now save on kindergarten and transportation can certainly be used for salary increases if local boards of education want to use those funds accordingly. A little gratitude seems in order here.
I’ve never objected to overall increases in education spending, though I don’t see any evidence doing so will have any meaningful impact on student learning if those dollars are spent indiscriminately.
And I have never favored pouring more money into the system itself without greater accountability to parents through school choice. We ought to be finding ways to fund students, not systems.
Sadly, this year’s General Assembly passed up the opportunity to make significant strides in that direction. HB 305 would have corrected problems in last year’s education opportunity accounts law, but House leaders refused to even place it in committee for a hearing. And while HB 9 started out as a strong bill to restore charter school funding and improve authorization, the version of the bill that was ultimately passed (over Gov. Beshear’s veto of course) is likely the weakest charter school law in the country.
Other policies that would further empower parents and the public met similar mixed results with this general assembly.
SB 1 shifted principal hiring and curriculum decisions away from unaccountable School-Based Decision-Making Councils to the local district superintendent. That is a step in the right direction because at least superintendents are accountable to locally elected boards of education.
But far too often those local boards defer blindly to the recommendations of education bureaucrats or powerful adult interests like teachers’ unions. HB 121, which passed without the Governor’s signature, requires every regular local board of education meeting to include at least 15 minutes of public comment. That’s good, considering that some districts had stopped allowing the public to speak at their meetings when local citizens started voicing concerns about critical race theory (CRT), mask mandates and other topics.
SB 1, through its merger with SB 138, also addressed – in an indirect way – widespread public concern about CRT by improving the state’s social studies standards. Rather than restricting CRT, SB 1 stipulated certain concepts that should be included in Kentucky social studies classrooms, including a set of important historical documents that previously did not appear in the state’s standards.
Again, this is a step in the right direction, and I think SB 138 avoids some potential unintended consequences of some of the other CRT-related bills. But it will not stop political indoctrination from taking place in Kentucky classrooms. To address that issue – which ultimately must be done at the local level - Kentucky needs to further empower the public to have direct access to the instructional materials being used in classrooms. Transparency provisions like this got no consideration from this General Assembly.
Likewise, lawmakers failed to protect parental rights over their children when it comes to health-related mandates. HB 51 would have given parents the right to opt out of school district mask and vaccine mandates. This bill passed the House but was not heard by the Senate.
What this legislative session suggests is that except for wildly popular (and justified), red-meat conservative issues like requiring Kentucky athletes to play sports according to their biological gender (SB 83), so-called conservative Republicans routinely demur when it comes to standing up for parents and the public against the education establishment.
This is bewildering because kowtowing to these groups will never earn their support when it comes election time. The education establishment will always and forever favor Democrat candidates who just parrot their endless calls for more money and less accountability.
School choice, educational transparency, nonideological instruction, and freedom from mandates are popular, not just within the Republican base that elects these lawmakers, but among voters in general.
The lessons of the 2022 General Assembly are clear: all the meaningful arguments in Kentucky policy are taking place on the right side of the political divide, and time and again the political establishment is siding with the education establishment. Voters are going to have to exercise a political solution if they want to see more common sense, transparency, choice, and accountability in the state’s education system.
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University and a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities. He served on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019.