Kentucky Has a New Governor. We Hope He’s Not a Jerk About Education Policy.

Although he took more than a week to concede, Kentucky’s 62nd governor, Republican Matt Bevin, will not serve a second term. Experts agree that his provocative and insulting style, particularly his comments about teachers, attributed to his loss. Most notoriously, Bevin called teachers “thugs” and blamed them for the sexual assault of children and the shooting of a seven-year-old girl, after teachers protested the legislature’s sneaky efforts to reform the state’s pension systems. 

We are both Kentucky-based Bellwarians, and in the short conversation below, we discuss why Governor Bevin failed to advance education reforms in the state — and what Governor-elect and Democrat Andy Beshear might be able to accomplish given Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature. 

Katrina: I think you and I have some diverging ideas and perspectives about politics in general, and even about some education policies. But is it safe to say that we both think Matt Bevin is, well, a bit of a jerk?

Alex: I think we definitely have some common ground there, although I’d be careful about calling him a jerk — he might label you with a nickname like “Kooky Katrina.” More seriously though, I think a big part of his legacy will be the policy wins he left on the table, due in large part to his incredibly abrasive approach to governing.

Katrina: You’re not wrong about that. I was a fan of some of his policy positions, especially much-needed pension reform and increased school choice. If he had a bit more goodwill and emotional intelligence, he might have been able to demonstrate how those policies could actually help teachers and students.

Alex: Yep, but because of his style, pension reform and school choice are likely off the table for the next four years. And while some may be satisfied with the status quo on those issues, there are a lot of teachers and thousands of students who could benefit from reform to teacher pensions and school choice policies. 

Katrina: So where do you think Beshear has the opportunity to move the ball forward on education policy? 

Alex: As I wrote last week, I think there’s potential for Beshear and the Republican-dominated legislature to find some common ground and produce policy wins for Kentucky’s kids. From my perspective, the most obvious place to start would be a restoration of funding for teacher training and textbooks, and maybe even a significant increase over previous levels. 

The previous state funding for textbooks and teacher professional development, and a new teacher support program called the Kentucky Teacher Internship Program (KTIP), was about $11 million dollars. While this might sound like a lot of money, in a state budget that provides billions of dollars to K-12 education, this figure is barely a rounding error. If that funding is restored and maybe even brought to higher levels, it could be a massive victory for students across the Commonwealth. 

While funding alone isn’t likely to move the needle on student performance, new funding could come with policy parameters that would better target literacy instruction and emphasize knowledge-building curricula. 

Katrina: That’s interesting — I wonder if there are examples of those policies working well in other states.

Alex: Louisiana is a great example of how Kentucky could support strong curriculum in schools. Their State Department of Education created a “Yelp for curriculum” and used state funding to help more districts adopt high-quality curricula. And since curriculum isn’t a silver bullet, KTIP can focus on ensuring strong implementation and improved pedagogy to help future teachers to deliver high-quality literacy instruction. It could even encourage educators to unlearn some bad pedagogical practices, like the “three-cueing method” which can limit student success.

The best part of this approach is that it would require a relatively modest investment and could yield a significant impact on students. 

Katrina: That’s a great point. Our colleague Chad Aldeman has suggested that improving instructional materials is a promising path to addressing flawed theories about how children learn to read. 

Alex: He also points out that we just don’t know much about the best ways to train teachers. 

Katrina: I’d love to see Andy Beshear and legislators work together to address that. The data that is being collected and compiled via Kentucky’s Teacher Preparation Feedback Report has a lot of potential. It can help colleges and universities understand where they need to improve, and, more importantly, it can help the actual consumers of teacher preparation programs — K-12 districts and teacher candidates — understand which programs are doing well and which aren’t. Ten years ago, when I was deciding which teacher preparation program was right for me, there wasn’t a tool to help me understand how different programs were performing. Beshear and the legislature could ramp up pressure to disseminate that tool more effectively.

Alex: I worked at KYSTATS before I came to Bellwether, and you’re so right about the power of that data! Our state is blessed to have one of the nation’s best longitudinal data systems and a really talented agency to help make that information more actionable for stakeholders across the Commonwealth. I’d love to see the new administration leverage those resources to help teacher candidates get a better understanding of our state’s teacher preparation programs!

Katrina: Yes! Beshear’s runningmate, Lt. Governor-elect Jacqueline Coleman, is an experienced educator. Aided by her insights, Beshear could influence how data about teacher prep programs can be part of a broader system to hold programs accountable for the performance of their graduates in the classroom. KTIP and the state’s teacher evaluation system clearly communicate expectations for teachers, and there should be that same level of clarity around expectations for postsecondary programs. Every kid deserves an excellent educator, and colleges and universities should be held accountable for their roles in training excellent teachers.

Another important issue: While I don’t see a clear path to Beshear making good on his proposed $2,000 pay raise for all teachers, I hope he can shift his focus to funding incentives to attract and retain teachers in schools and districts with the highest needs. While reports of widespread teacher shortages are a bit inflated, there are urgent needs in schools with high poverty rates and teacher shortages in areas like early childhood education and exceptional education. The state’s largest district, Jefferson County, has made some strides to incentivize teachers to work in high-need schools. But the legislature should follow the lead of states like Tennessee, where districts are required to differentiate teacher compensation based on criteria including hard-to-staff subject areas and schools, or North Carolina, where highly qualified new teachers receive higher pay for teaching in critical shortage areas or low-performing schools.

Alex: I’m with you on teacher prep and on differentiated pay to attract and retain teachers with specialized training in our highest-needs classrooms. You know what else would help attract teachers from beyond our state’s borders? A retirement system that doesn’t require teaching in our state for more than 20 years to see a positive return on retirement savings. But that’s a conversation for another day. In the meantime, let’s hope our state’s leaders can find ways to reach across the aisle to improve teaching and learning, from Paducah to Pikeville.