Bipartisanship is Alive — in Public Education in Kentucky

I started my career years ago in politics, and learned from two members of Congress who were very adept at the political process.

They consistently worked with colleagues from both parties, at a time when a bipartisan win was highly valued.

Over the years, I’ve coined my own definition of politics: figuring out how to work together to make progress on important things.

On the national stage these days, the definition of politics seems to be to work hard to avoid working together, and, worse, to defame the other side — just because.

Luckily, people are working together across party lines right here in Kentucky, and in the most important area of public education.

This approach has made a big difference in Kentucky’s public education progress, and provides an example for others to follow. Thirty years ago, the Kentucky Education Reform Act was passed with bipartisan support, and with the backing of the public and private sectors.

The main example of coming together this session of the General Assembly was the passage of Senate Bill 1, which updates our state education statutes to carry out the new federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, updates the accountability system, implements a formal review process for academic standards, gives flexibility in staff evaluations, and outlines the types of assistance available for the lowest performing schools.

Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said, “It is an impressive bill for many reasons,” commenting on the bipartisan nature of the effort, and added, “Kudos to Senator Wilson in working with all the different stakeholders and working with us (KDE) too.”

There’s a lot of good in that legislation regarding reducing the stark labeling of schools and emphasizing the arts and career experiences, while keeping the high achievement expectations for what we call the basics: reading, math, science and social studies.

But the takeaway I have been thinking about most is how a big bill like that got done and drew a unanimous vote in BOTH the House and the Senate, and was signed into law by the Governor.

No one got everything they wanted. But, everyone believes that high standards for school improvement were preserved in the bill. Many lauded the flexibility given the local districts to make some important choices on how they measure staff performance, and assess student progress. Teachers praised the provisions that promise to reduce the emphasis on testing in their classrooms.

How did they get to their goal? By respecting others. By aggressively listening – meaning Sen. Wilson and his key staff expert, former JCPS administrator Joe Burks, sought advice from ALL parties.

It took the willingness on the part of interest groups to give here and there, while ensuring that their main goals were preserved. The goal everyone shared was preserving a system that seeks high achievement for all students in the Commonwealth, no matter what.

This was a two-year negotiation process, as the bill was introduced in the 2016 session, but didn’t make it through. Probably the bill is better for the wait, as more people understood what ESSA would require (it was signed into law only days before last year’s legislative session commenced).

There are lots of ways interest groups lobby these days, including the use of messages that are strategically placed in traditional and social media, often hardening positions along party lines.

We preserved important common ground in the legislature this year. That ground should always be set aside for what’s best for students.

I think back to some hope I drew from a presentation by Hal Heiner, Secretary of Education and Workforce Development, at a Leadership Louisville speaker series breakfast in December.

I went eager to hear what might be on his mind going into this legislative session, knowing his position on some issues related to education.

But instead of bringing up the most controversial education agenda items, he talked to the group about this three broad goals: working to employ the un- and under-employed, ensuring high school students get valuable exposure to postsecondary opportunities and addressing the achievement gap.

Now that’s common ground where we can all congregate.

I say let’s work together on how to make progress on these important things.

That’s my definition of successful politics, and fits pretty well, I think.


About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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