KENTUCKY — Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Thursday his Education First Plan, which aims to address the teacher shortage and loss of learning for students during the pandemic.
The plan includes funding for a 5% pay raise for school staff, universal pre-K, textbooks, technology and training, teacher student loan forgiveness and social and mental health services, according to a press release from the governor's office.
Currently, there are nearly 11,000 public school teacher vacancies in Kentucky.
“In order to help ensure we are doing everything possible to help every child reach their full potential and to rebound from what history shows us occurs as the result of difficult and deadly times of pandemic or war, we must address our teacher and staff shortages in our schools," Beshear said.
The General Assembly can address the plan during the 2023 regular session.
In the state's latest report card, a majority of schools fell right down in the middle in the yellow category. About 5% of schools in the state fell in the worst ranking, the red category. A little under 8% of schools got the highest, the blue category.
Republicans are trying to pin the blame on Beshear, who is seeking a second term next year. National test scores show it's a chronic problem across the U.S. as education tries to recover from the virtual learning and staffing shortage caused by the pandemic.
Kentucky lawmakers have generally followed their own course in setting education policies. The budget they passed this year funded full-day kindergarten and poured money into teacher pensions. They increased the state’s main funding formula — known as SEEK — for K-12 schools, but the amount was hundreds of millions less than what Beshear proposed.
The Kentucky Department of Education weren't surprised by the results, citing the pandemic as a major disruption to students' learning, which Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Demetrus Liggins echoed on Thursday.
“I think we all recognize that we are in a vastly different place today than we were three years ago, and it’s important to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on many students, including slowing academic progress, increased social emotional and mental health needs and delayed behavioral development,” Liggins said.
Here's a breakdown of the plan:
Beshear proposed a 5% raise for every school employee in Kentucky, which would be above and beyond any recent raises by school districts. Kentucky ranks 44th in the U.S. for starting salaries, with new teachers averaging about $37,373 per year, according to Beshear's office.
The plan aims to fund pre-K for all four-year-olds and full-day kindergarten.
“To become and stay a top economy in the U.S. we have to continue to build a world-class education system, and that starts with universal pre-K. Pre-K is also the single most effective step we can take to immediately increase our workforce," Beshear said.
Last year, Frankfort lawmakers failed to pass a proposal by Beshear for textbook funding, which he once again plans to resurface.
To help retain teachers, the governor is proposing a student loan forgiveness program that will offer a maximum $3,000 annual award for each year of employment in a public school as a teacher.
The governor wants to set aside funds to assemble statewide staff and eight regional Social Emotional Learning institutes to help educators have access to training on how to help students with their mental health. He also plans to implement two new grant programs for school districts to provide wrap-around services to students impacted by violence, substance abuse, child abuse and parental incarceration, as well as other resources.
"In March 2021, lawmakers overrode Gov. Beshear’s veto, leaving new teachers without the traditional, defined benefits pension plan, which guaranteed benefits after so many years of service," Beshear's office wrote in the press release. "This action severely cut overall compensation for new teachers by eliminating the most valuable benefit and the only benefit aimed at retention. Now, new teachers are in a hybrid plan, where they are expected to pay more into retirement. In 2018, then-Attorney General Beshear led efforts to have the well-known 'sewer bill'—which would have stripped teacher retirement benefits—struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court."
Because of this, Beshear said he plans to restore pensions, adding, "When you look at long-term costs, it makes much more sense to hire one teacher now and retain them for 30 years versus hire one teacher now, have them quit in a year or two, and then face a constant cycle of turnover.”