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'They're our children': Beshear pushes education priorities amid poor test scores

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has renewed his push for higher teacher salaries and state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear renewed his push Thursday for higher teacher salaries and state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds, offering a response to statewide test scores showing setbacks among many students caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flanked by state education leaders, the Democratic governor urged the Republican-dominated legislature to reopen the state budget next year to pump more money into public schools. Beshear said his proposals are intended to overcome teacher shortages, better prepare preschoolers for kindergarten and help students to catch up and thrive.

“The things we’re talking about today are not red or blue issues," Beshear said in pitching his plan at a news conference. "They’re our children.”

The governor reoffered his priorities about a week after statewide test scores showed fewer than half of Kentucky students tested were reading at grade level. Even lower across-the-board scores were posted in math, science and social studies.

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.

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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.

Lawmakers this year declined to fund pre-K for every 4-year-old in Kentucky. And they left it up to local school districts to decide whether to use additional state funding to provide higher pay to teachers and other school staff. Most districts have awarded pay raises, Republicans say.

The governor said Thursday that more needs to be done.

Beshear called for a 5% pay raise for every school employee in Kentucky. It would apply to bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and other school personnel as well as teachers. The raise would be “above and beyond” any pay increases already awarded by local school boards, he said.

Kentucky ranks near the bottom nationally for starting salaries, with new teachers, on average, receiving about $37,370 per year, the governor said.

“Right now, we’re paying our teachers when they start less than many of their students can earn directly entering the workforce with just that high school education," Beshear said.

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It's contributing to a workforce shortage in classrooms, he said. Kentucky has nearly 11,000 vacancies for public school teaching positions, the governor's office said in a news release.

“Folks, you can’t catch a child up on math if you don’t have a math teacher,” Beshear said.

In pushing again for state-backed pre-K for 4-year-olds, Beshear said it would foster long-term educational success among pupils, enabling early intervention for children needing extra help.

The governor said his universal pre-K plan would cost the state $172 million a year, which he called an easily affordable investment amid the state's record budget and revenue surpluses.

Beshear called for additional funding for textbooks and professional development, and to develop regional centers to train educators on how best to help students deal with mental health issues.

He also renewed his push for a loan forgiveness program for teachers. His proposal would offer a maximum $3,000 annual award for each year a teacher has been employed at a public school.

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Republicans have pounced on the dismal test scores to criticize Beshear, who faces a tough reelection campaign. A large field of GOP challengers has lined up for next year's campaign. They point to Beshear's aggressive support for shutdowns during the height of the pandemic.

Kentucky Republican Party spokesman Sean Southard said GOP lawmakers empowered local school districts to decide how best to recover from the pandemic.

“Despite his efforts to run away from his pandemic actions, students and parents will not forget the biggest contributor to learning loss in the Commonwealth of Kentucky: Governor Andy Beshear,” Southard said in a statement Thursday.

Beshear on Thursday pointed to a report showing that during the height of the pandemic, public school buildings were closed across the country. The governor noted that it was local school districts in Kentucky that decided when to shift to remote learning to prevent more COVID-19 illnesses.

“In many ways, COVID-19 has been our generation’s toughest foe,” the governor said, noting that the state's pandemic-related death toll has surpassed 17,000.

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