Update, 3/15/18: I've been asked a couple of times for my reaction to Governor Bevin's remarks yesterday wherein he attacked protesters against pension reform proposals as "selfish" and whether I would amend any of my thoughts below based on his comments.
Let me say first of all that I don't know Governor Bevin personally. This surprises people sometimes knowing that he appointed me to the Kentucky Board of Education. But in fact, I have only met him twice, once when he was campaigning here in Bowling Green for U.S. Senate in 2014 (he had no idea who I was at the time) and one other time in 2017 when I attended a large gathering in Frankfort for all new members of state boards and commissions. There are many things I admire about the Governor, especially his willingness to challenge the bureaucratic structures and mindsets which have limited Kentucky's economic, educational, and cultural growth. As fellow conservatives, I think we probably share many common goals and values. Interestingly, though we agree on school choice, I suspect my views differ from the Governor's on several aspects of education policy. My point is that I don't speak for the Governor or serve him. As I argue below, my constituents are the children and families and public good of Kentucky, and I speak only for myself.
I think the Governor's remarks yesterday were unfair and unfortunate. I agree with House Speaker David Osborne, who said today that the Governor's comments were "inappropriate." I believe Governor Bevin was expressing his frustration about those who are fighting against any form of change to the current pension system. And he's right that if nothing changes, the consequences for the state will be devastating. But teachers should be given a deep measure of sympathy and understanding right now. Even if the need for change is non-negotiable, these reforms amount to a ton of broken promises in terms of what some of our most valuable public servants have come to expect for their families' financial future. Belittling their anger and concern is not helpful. In fact, it makes finding common ground on this issue infinitely harder.
So was the Governor's comments an "attack on public education?" No. That ascribes an intent to his actions that is unjustified. But it was a foolish and inappropriate and counterproductive attack on those who disagree with him.
I want everyone, on all sides of this issue, to stop their name-calling and personal attacks and scare tactics and demonizing those who disagree. I want educators to own the fact that the system has got to change, including for active employees (hopefully in the most modest ways possible) and come to the table with meaningful ideas for reform. And I want the Governor to honor our teachers with a much deeper level of dignity and respect and appreciation as they are asked to make these huge sacrifices. And then I want to see a good, common ground solution to this problem so we can get back to the good work of educating children.
About every other day I read in the news or on social media a lament about how public education, especially here in Kentucky, is "under attack." Pension reform, battles over spending cuts for education, and school choice have dominated the headlines recently. Groups representing professional educators have mobilized like never before to defend their interests, often while promoting a narrative that dark forces are at work intent on destroying public schools. Occasionally I am personally vilified as one of the players in this alleged war against education.
There's no question that these are extremely challenging times for professional educators. I've given the better part of two decades now in service of public schools as a teacher, school administrator, and now as a professor of education administration training the next generation of public school leaders. I've tried to focus my career on improving the quality of learning in schools and I believe my work on the Kentucky Board of Education reflects that effort. As a member of the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System, my own family's financial future will be profoundly shaped by what happens with pension reform. I am the son of a retired teacher and the brother and brother-in-law of public school teachers. My stake in what happens to education in Kentucky is clear.
The existing education establishment is being challenged to adapt to financial realities and new paradigms of thinking about educational delivery. But it's not helpful to couch what's happening in our state as a war against public schools, even when state leaders sometimes use bombastic, inflammatory rhetoric that might suggest otherwise.
What is "education?"
I think it's important to distinguish between education as a process of teaching and learning versus education as the institutions in which a lot of teaching and learning currently take place. Education happens all the time. It happens informally in the interactions of children with their parents and peers and with the world. It happens - often - in formal learning situations as well. For about 650,000 Kentucky children, education takes place in district-operated public schools. Another 72,000 are educated in non-public schools, and roughly 20,000 more are educated at home.
The quality of the education taking place in these institutions may vary widely and is not easy to measure. The point is that there are a variety of institutions in which education can take place and the process of education can be distinguished from the institutions in which it occurs. Some institutions will do a good job delivering education. Others will struggle. And all such institutions exist within a larger framework of policies and inter-mediating institutions like families and the local community. Right now people associated with certain education institutions perceive they are facing major challenges in resources and support.
Is pension reform an attack on public education?
A key issue facing public school employees is the prospect of pension reform. I've written about this topic previously (most recently here), so I don't intend to hash through all the complexities in this post. The bottom line is that, as difficult as it will be for current KTRS members like me, changes must be made to the pension system to make it fair and sustainable over time. I hope proposed legislation continues to be revised to minimize the impact as much as possible on current retirees and active employees. But the fact that lawmakers are addressing this issue should be a credit to their sense of responsibility for dealing with a problem previous state leaders have systematically avoided (and made worse through under-funding) for decades.
Many colleagues seem to think that more funding is the fix for our pension crisis. Certainly greater funding levels are required and are being delivered. KTRS received only 45% of its requested funding when Governor Bevin took office. In fiscal year 2017 it was 93% funded and, based on his proposed budget, it will be 100% funded next year. But funding alone will not solve this problem. By the Kentucky Education Association's own estimates, even if KTRS had been fully funded for the last decade the system would still face a $10 billion liability.
Of course the Governor's own rhetoric has unfairly minimized legitimate concerns about the implications of pension reform and, intended or not, made teachers feel as though he blamed them for the crisis. This is unfortunate and has probably made meaningful pension reform considerably harder. But I wish educators would take the high ground and recognize that challenging the status quo on pensions is not, in itself, an attack on public education.
Does education funding reflect an attack on education?
Related to pension reform, and further complicating the discussion of that issue, was the Governor's proposed budget which included massive cuts in K-12 education spending. Most of those cuts were made to cover massive new outlays to better fund the pension system. But again, the proposal came with harsh rhetoric from the Governor decrying administrative bloat in education and also gutting transportation spending, already a huge expense for local schools, in amounts that will likely lead to the bankruptcy of some struggling districts. Teachers didn't really appreciate the additional pension spending when it was clear this proposal would have severe consequences for their school's operating budgets, and ultimately for students.
All of this comes after years of headlines showing a decline in inflation-adjusted dollars on state education spending since the 2008 recession. It feels to many that education has been a shrinking priority. All of this takes place, however, against a backdrop of exploding pension liabilities, poor economic growth, and anemic tax revenues. Kentucky leaders should have arguably put more into K-12 education spending, but they had a lot less revenue to cover a lot more needs over the same period.
This is something that ultimately only tax reform will address, and that appears to be a desire of everyone in Frankfort...as soon as a state budget is approved and something is done about the pension problem. Without tax reform, education will face a budget crisis every single year for the foreseeable future. Again, that's as much a product of past failures of Kentucky leaders and extremely difficult circumstances as it is an organized war effort to gut education spending.
The real pattern of education spending is more complicated than just a simple decline in funding, even adjusted for inflation. Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, has devoted a ton of time over the years to the difficulties of tracking how much Kentucky actually spends on education and where the money goes (disclosure: I serve on the Bluegrass Institute Board of Scholars, but have not contributed to their work in this area). My sense is that an increasingly large percentage of our education dollars never make it down to the school level because they are absorbed into overhead personnel costs like health insurance and the pension program. Kentucky also seems to lack basic, consistent accounting procedures that would allow us to compare per pupil spending across schools and districts and look for inefficiencies or opportunities to maximize impact.
None of this is to say that further cuts to education won't have a negative impact on students, or that we shouldn't look for opportunities to improve spending in ways that actually make it down to the classroom level. I have voiced my concerns about the consequences of the Governor's proposed budget for education and have consistently called for improvements in per pupil education spending, as long as those improvements are tied to other reforms around student and parental empowerment and choice. But I fail to see how this issue boils down to a war between good guys who love kids and bad guys who don't, and good-willed supporters of education can nevertheless remain skeptical that increases in spending alone will have a positive impact on student learning.
Does school choice represent an attack on public education?
I have addressed this question at length on many other occasions, most recently here, but it does reflect the distinction I made at the beginning between education as a process and the various institutions that deliver that public good. The only way one can argue that giving parents options in who educates their children harms public schools is if you believe education dollars are primarily for institutions, and you value the money each child represents to the institution more than you value providing low-income families options among education providers.
I don't. I believe education should be generously funded like other important public goods, but it should be treated like other highly personal goods (like Pell Grants, SNAP, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.) and the beneficiary should have some choice in provider. Such choices are an "attack" on traditional public schools only if you believe such institutions should have a monopoly on educational delivery for l0w- and middle-income families (affluent families already and always will have school choice).
Institutions are a means; education is the end
Educator groups are bombarding social media this week with a special #loveKYpubliceducation campaign. Mostly it seems designed to generate further opposition to pension and budget proposals. I won't be actively participating, but not because I don't love public educators. I love - literally - several public school teachers and appreciate all educators who give so much of themselves in service of their students. My life's work is focused on practices and policies that I believe help great teachers unleash their enormous potential to make a difference in the lives of children. I consider myself a public educator.
But one can love and appreciate public educators while still being opposed to the status quo on pensions. One can love public educators and still be skeptical that increasing education spending in itself will lead to better learning results. One can love public education and still believe that every family should have a choice in who educates their children. And one can love public educators while expecting the institutions of public education to change.
I was recently called out on Twitter by a prominent public school superintendent for using my position as a member of the Kentucky Board of Education to publicly advocate for school choice but failing, in his opinion, to adequately lobby against pension reform proposals and the Governor's education budget. My response reflected many of the ideas I've shared above. These issues are complicated, and while I've been terribly disappointed in the Governor's approach to the budget and pension reform, I have been equally dismayed by the overly-simplistic and divisive rhetoric of the education establishment. There's a common sense common ground on these issues, and I've tried to argue for it. My record of service to public education can speak for itself.
But more importantly, I don't do what I do in the service of institutions. My work as an educator has always been about students and their families and how stronger communities emerge from a virtuous, well-informed citizenry. I have worked for and in and with institutions whenever those institutions share the common goal of doing what's best for students, as best I can discern it. Usually being an advocate for education also makes me an ally of certain education institutions, but not always.
The institutions of the education establishment are among the most powerful in Kentucky. They are well-organized and well-funded. They are clearly representing their interests and don't need my help in doing so. By grace I will keep my focus on education: advocating for kids and families who don't have strong voices and creating the best possible avenues for their learning, and that's the perspective from which I'll keep thinking about these issues.
Usual disclaimer: Views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I have served as a member since 2016).