Kentucky Set to Pass Major Education Legislation

Kentucky Set to Pass Major Education Legislation
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The 2016 elections handed Republicans record political power at the state level. In Kentucky, the land of thoroughbreds, they're running with it.

After winning back control of the state legislature and governorship, Republicans are on the cusp of passing Senate Bill 1, legislation that would take a large chunk of education decision-making out of the hands of the federal and state government and return it to Kentucky’s local districts and schools.

The bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green, said in an interview that the law seizes upon the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to transfer power from Washington to the people. In rare bipartisan fashion, the bill unanimously passed the Kentucky Senate. It cleared the state House education committee Tuesday and is expected to be approved by the full House and signed by Gov. Matt Bevin within the next several days. Some House Democrats have voiced support for Wilson's legislation while reports indicate that others are using their political capital to fight a separate bill that would permit charter schools in the state for the first time.

Among other things, Wilson's legislation would reform the state’s accountability system and change the way teacher evaluations are conducted. It would also overhaul how the state’s education standards are reviewed and amended. Here is where Wilson has drawn the most attention.

Under ESSA, the federal government is prohibited from imposing a set of standards on a state. Republicans, in particular, celebrated this change and the fact that it decoupled the Common Core State Standards from any federal intervention, such as the Obama administration’s effort to link the Common Core to Race to the Top funding.

Notably, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core standards. However, critics on the right believed the state had acquiesced to a federal overreach. Thanks to ESSA and Senate Bill 1, the standards will likely soon be firmly in the control of the citizens of Kentucky.

“It [Senate Bill 1] gives Kentucky the ability to take control of its own standards, to change them, to adjust them and not to be bound by anything that has been pushed on us from U.S. Department of Education,” said Wilson.

Some in the media have been quick to claim that Wilson’s bill completely repeals the Common Core. For example, one local headline read: “Kentucky Senate approves repeal of Common Core standards in schools.”

Wilson says that it’s not that simple. His legislation does not immediately or entirely repeal the Common Core. Rather, it establishes a process to regularly review and, if necessary, change the state standards, a process that many other states already have in place.

To be specific, the bill would establish advisory boards and committees made up of teachers and members of higher education to review the standards in four subject areas: English language arts, math, science and social studies. (The Common Core only encompasses English and math.) Once the review process commences, it would be staggered. In year one, English language arts would be up for review, in year two math, and so on. The process would repeat every six years.

Along with the rigorous review process, a group of teachers will take the same state exams that are administered to students and review them to see if they are demanding enough and properly aligned to the state standards. If they are not, a new test provider can be found or the existing vendor can adjust the test. Wilson believes this is the first teacher-led program of its kind in the country.

The law also makes significant changes in how the state handles failing schools. “The law empowers local school districts to find their own remedies for turning schools around instead of automatic intervention from the department taking over a school,” stated Wilson. In addition, it grants schools and districts the authority to evaluate teachers rather than the state department of education.

Substantial changes are made to the state's testing procedures as well. The legislation would require all high school students to take the SAT or ACT twice. (Other tests will be rolled back and these exams will take their place.) Wilson claims that these changes will help the state better calculate and understand how it is meeting ESSA’s postsecondary readiness requirements.

Finally, the legislation allows local workforce investment boards to focus and prioritize industry certifications so that students are better equipped to identify and pursue the best paying vocations.

Wilson pointed to the fact that many students in Kentucky don’t even realize there are four auto assembly plants in the state with an average wage of $58,000 a year. By contrast, a teacher in Kentucky with a four-year degree and certification will start at approximately $36,000 a year. Wilson wants to ensure that students are equipped with this type of knowledge in order to make smart career choices.

All in all, Wilson believes the legislation, if passed, would firmly plant control of standards, testing and accountability in the hands of those who matter most: parents, teachers, local districts and schools. How these changes are received and implemented remains to be seen.

Christopher Beach is the editor of RealClearEducation. 

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