Be Bold Again in KY Public Education; An Inspirational Challenge

Last week I was inspired during a speech about public education.  That doesn’t happen much these days, but it should happen more. Inspiration is essential in the business of education.

Dr. Vicki Phillips came home to Kentucky to participate in a discussion about her life in education, from her roots in Falls of Rough, Kentucky, through her experience as a teacher, superintendent, and state official, to her time with Bill and Melinda Gates managing education grants and now to the National Geographic Society as its chief education officer.

The inspiration in her presentation for me came from knowing that education has been her life’s work, and that her perspective on its future is based what’s possible.

The Impact of Mentors and Teachers

Dr. Phillips didn’t grow up planning to go to college; it wasn’t her family’s tradition. But a mentor got a hold of her. She became a teacher and the rest of her life’s work combined to make a compelling presentation about the impact of a good education.

Even with her global expertise, Dr. Phillips emphasized the essential element of good public education is STILL the teacher. She said we should listen to them in our search of how to achieve greater gains for all kids.


What didn’t come up in her presentation were tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, or any other initiative in this era of education “reform.”

She answered multiple questions from students. She urged them to find a mentor to help them, telling the story of how a friend in Breckinridge County High School expressed alarm that she wasn’t planning to attend college. That friend had faith in Vicki and sparked the drive she didn’t know she had.

All young people have potential. Too many go without a strong mentor to remind them of their strengths and help them maximize that potential.  It’s as simple as noticing each one, and helping them find their value and voice.

Kentucky Moves from the Bottom to the Middle. What’s Next?

The inspiration in the speech for me as an advocate of public education was her call for a bold coalition with the resolve of the KERA era to make that next big move for education in the Commonwealth.

She worked at the Kentucky Department of Education in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and remembered the business-community-government partnership that implemented the Kentucky Education Reform Act with new funding and innovations that supported Kentucky’s move up the education rankings from the bottom to the middle.

It was a strong partnership with top business leaders standing next to educators. That faith in public education, in itself, made the difference. There’s power in knowing you are valued and supported.

She urged us to find that power again and rebuild a strong, unified partnership. I’m for that. But it will take some honest reflection on our parts about how we got where we are.

Let’s start by appreciating our school system and the teachers who do the work every day. Let’s be the mentor to the student and the visible, vocal supporter that public education really needs. Be part of the inspiration behind the next big move in Kentucky education.

Dr. Phillips was brought to Louisville on March 7, 2019, by Kentucky to the World, a Louisville-based nonprofit, dedicated to enhancing the reputation of the state, its people and assets to the world. You may view a clip from her presentation here:

Find out more about Kentucky to the World here:

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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