A Teacher’s Wish List: Will Frankfort Listen? And Should We Be Careful What We Wish For?

William Tucker

On October 29th, members of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents (KASS) met in Shelbyville to hold a series of press conferences that outlined its legislative “wish list” for the 2020 session. 

Superintendents addressed issues of creating new funding for schools, how to handle the continued teacher shortage, and how to combat proposals for school choice and school vouchers that some legislators have championed for the past several sessions. 

KASS members are hopeful that lawmakers will pay attention to some of (if not all) their concerns, with hopes that their advocacy will be meaningful as new legislation is created.

So the question must be asked: why can’t teachers have a legislative wish list?

Of course, superintendents would want us to believe that they act in our best interest, that they have our students at the forefront of their lobbying and decision-making, but in our state that has been so chronically and critically divided over the past four years, how are we to fully trust our leaders?  

The answer? 

We cautiously trust those who lead us, while also preparing for whatever the legislature might throw at us in this next session. 

Teachers must be ready to advocate for themselves, their students, and their profession more than ever before. Even though many see Beshear’s gubernatorial win as a great step forward, the honest truth is that some of the toughest work that we have as teachers lies directly ahead as a Frankfort that has continually failed us comes back to work in January. 

Perhaps legislators need a “Teachers’ Wish List” that could go along with the list presented by KASS? But with so many needs, where do teachers even begin their list?

I believe the true answer lies in fully funding schools. According to The Courier Journal, education funds accounted for only 43% of Kentucky’s budget this year, as opposed to 52% in 1996-97.  KASS members suggest that this reduction in funding has led to a number of issues that directly impact teachers throughout the state’s 172 districts.  The leaders also contend that raising state contributions back to at least 52% would create around $1 billion for schools. 

Imagine schools that have fully funded libraries, where the books were not last purchased in 1990 or before. Think about 1-2-1 Chromebooks, iPads, and other forms of technology that would allow Kentucky students to actually be on equal ground with their peers in other states.  Think about the benefits of having school nurses, and mental health counselors on staff that would help our students holistically, fighting some of the chronic mental and physical health issues that further contribute to the achievement gap. 

The second most important thing that legislators and superintendents could give teachers doesn’t cost a thing: trust. Last school year was fueled by tensions that came from sick outs and the threat of recourse from Wayne Lewis and his state cronies, so once Governor-elect Beshear establishes his own state Board of Education, superintendents need to reach out to teachers to create a viable plan for legislative advocacy. Perhaps Kentucky schools could be forward thinking and follow Indiana school districts’ lead in allowing teachers to use their own voices in the state house, rather than relying only upon a few voices to speak for the many? Since there are only 12 unionized districts in our state, all Kentucky teachers must be given a fair chance to represent themselves and their needs to their elected leaders. What better way to build trust than to let teachers speak from their own experiences?

Trust must also be extended to the curriculum. At the October press conference, KASS Executive Director Jim Flynn suggested that there needs to be a “better balance” between superintendents and SBDM councils in the determination of a school’s curriculum. Here in JCPS, we have entire offices and experts devoted to curriculum, but most of our state is not so fortunate. Imagine what would happen if a superintendent suddenly decided that Creationism has to be taught, rather than evolutionary Biology. 

Or think about what would happen if an SBDM (under the guidance of a superintendent) found that a World Religions class was “too Muslim”, or “too Buddhist”. That kind of decision would undoubtedly alienate students and families in school communities, and only exacerbate the xenophobic climate that proliferates some Kentucky schools. 

Superintendents (and legislators, for that matter) need to stay away from intensely policing or supervising the curriculum. Classrooms work best when creativity and autonomy rule. I understand that there needs to be continuity and an assurance that standards are being upheld, but the best teaching often comes from letting people follow their passions, rather than having  a weekly flowchart of learning targets dictate what happens in and out of the classroom. 

Money and trust. Those seem like simple things to ask for, but this session is likely to be contentious and nerve-wracking for all of us in education. Even though the governor’s race was a real victory, the hard work of making Kentucky into an academically competitive state will require cooperation from all sides, and a place at the table for teachers. 

And superintendents, if you’re reading this, please be careful for what you wish for as we move into session, because if this past year serves as evidence for what happens when angry, passionate teachers unite to fight for their rights, then great change may finally be on the way for this Commonwealth. 

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