Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman entered office in December 2019 with a pledge to be an “education-first administration.” As a former public school teacher, administrator, and basketball coach, Coleman brings a wealth of experience to the lieutenant governor’s office and to the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, where she is also secretary.
On their first day, Beshear replaced the sitting Kentucky Board of Education with new members he said were committed to public schools. Coleman says the reconstituted group they put in place is one of the most qualified boards in the nation with expertise ranging from early childhood to postsecondary education.
“We have a multitude of really knowledgeable talented perspectives to be able to give us advice,” says Coleman.
But neither the Beshear Administration nor the new board could’ve predicted the disruptions that awaited them from COVID-19 just three months later. By mid-March, education officials executed a rapid transition to virtual instruction when schools closed at the outset of the pandemic.
“In so many cases, our options were bad and bad,” says the lieutenant governor. “We had to make do and make the best of those situations, which is what every teacher, parent, and student across Kentucky has done.”
But online instruction only works if students have reliable internet access. Coleman says up to 15 percent of Kentucky students did not have internet service at home when the pandemic started. She says school administrators and community leaders deployed internet hotspots in underserved areas, so now only about 3 to 5 percent of students still lack home access. Coleman says it is critical that the state fund and install so-called last-mile service so that all families can connect to the internet.
“There’s not an even playing field as long as there’s a digital divide,” she says.
Along with the technical challenges and the physical health risks, the pandemic has also had an impact on mental health. With schools closed and extracurricular activities suspended, students have lost many of the social interactions that are vital to healthy emotional development. There’s also the fear that can come with facing a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
“We have continued with the uncertainty, and the anxiety, and the isolation, and it’s taking a toll on all of us,” says Coleman. “It’s very difficult to be removed from your students, and to maintain relationships, and to build those relationships the way that you would face to face.”
The lieutenant governor says she understands the urgency to get students back in the classroom. She says teachers share that goal, but she adds they want to do so in a way that doesn’t endanger their own health or the well-being of students and school staff as well as the families they go home to at night.
More Money for Schools, Teachers, Staff, and Students
Gov. Beshear presented his one-year budget plan to lawmakers last week, which includes a $1,000 pay raise for all public school teachers and staff, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers. He also called for an increase to basic school funding as well as money for textbooks and electronic instruction resources.
GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled state House and Senate have signaled their reluctance to raise school salaries at a time of such great economic uncertainty and when so many Kentuckians have lost their jobs because of COVID-19.
Coleman says the pandemic has reinforced the vital role that public schools play in the lives of Kentuckians, and she asks lawmakers to work together during this difficult time.
“Public education should not be partisan, and raising the wages of our public servants shouldn’t be partisan either,” says Coleman. “This is an issue that we should be able to come together on to improve the economic life of the folks that take care for our kids everyday.”
Beshear also called for $100 million to rebuild and repair public schools, full funding for the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, money for student mental health services, and a 2 percent increase in funding for colleges and universities.
Coleman says she also hopes lawmakers will fund the state Academy for Equity in Teaching, which will help recruit and train high quality educators from diverse backgrounds. Addressing racial inequities is a high priority for state education officials, and Coleman says it’s important for students of color to have teachers who look like them.
“It improves outcomes for our Black and brown students,” she says. “If they have a teacher of color, at least two, by the time there are in third grade they are 32 percent more likely to graduate high school and go to college.”
Republican lawmakers are also expected to revisit legislation meant to help low-income families afford the cost of sending their children to private school. As a former public school teacher, Coleman says she opposes such plans.
“Whether you call it a scholarship tax credit or a school voucher... it’s the same thing as putting lipstick on a pig,” says the lieutenant governor. “It is diverting public dollars away from our public education system at a time where we need it now more than ever.”
Boosting Educational Achievement and the Economy
To help the 327,000 Kentuckians who lack a high school diploma, the Beshear Administration waived fees for first-time GED test takers. Coleman says about 3,500 Kentuckians used that benefit in the first half of 2020. Now with testing sites closed by COVID-19, the Beshear Administration instituted online GED testing in November. Coleman says that it is important to make these options available even during a pandemic because she says people without a high school diploma or equivalent make far less income over their lifetimes than those with a diploma.
Coleman says the administration is also working to close gaps in student preparedness as they move into kindergarten, then advance through school, and transition into college or a specialized training program.
Testing data indicates that only 51 percent of Kentucky children are ready to start kindergarten. As they enter middle school, only about 29 percent are proficient at math. Coleman says the state should fund more early childhood education as well as full-day kindergarten at every school in the commonwealth. She says that investment is critical to helping children succeed as they progress from preschool to high school and beyond.
“That real transformational change doesn’t just improve their life but it improves their family’s life as well,” says Coleman.
The Beshear Administration along with the Council on Postsecondary Education, the state Department of Education, and the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet have partnered to create the Commonwealth Education Continuum to better prepare students as they move through each step of their academic journeys. Coleman says the effort will benefit students, their families, and the state’s economy.
“We have to be able to produce more students with college degrees in the commonwealth if we truly want to make sure that economic development is a priority and we’re able to bring in new businesses to create new jobs,” she says.
But many of these initiatives may take a backseat to COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. Instead of longing for a return to the way things used to be, Coleman says she hopes educators can continue to use the new approaches they’ve developed that may be better or more efficient than how they used to operate. She also hopes that schools, families and communities will continue to collaborate like they have during the pandemic.
“We’re all struggling – it’s difficult for all of is in many different ways,” says Coleman. “This is the time, if there ever was a time, for us to extend grace to each other because of those circumstances.”