Education can’t afford to lose any traction in Ky.

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By Gov. Stephen Beshear

I often hear diametrically opposed statements about Kentucky’s schools:

One, they’re a lost cause.

Or two, they were “fixed” in 1990 by the Kentucky Education Reform Act, and they need no further attention.

Neither conclusion is true.

Now, KERA was a revolutionary event.

Empowered by the decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education and energized by a spirit of rebirth that swept the state, Kentucky created from scratch a new system of schools that demonstrated - to the nation and to our children - our commitment to a better future.

It was a stand against failure.

And it’s true that the progress since has been considerable and measurable:

•We’ve moved from 43rd to 34th among states in an overall Education Index.

•Our undergraduate college enrollment grew 40 percent from 1997 to 2006.

•And every group of students is performing better at every level on state tests.

But that rebirth was nearly two decades ago.

Technology has grown more sophisticated, the pace of learning has quickened dramatically and the fundamental foundation of knowledge and skills that one requires to function - and succeed - has expanded far beyond what we could envision even 20 years ago.

Neither the world nor our competitors has stood still.

It’s time for Kentucky to re-galvanize the support that sparked the KERA revolution. And it’s time to update the strategies we’re using to prepare our children for this new and exciting world.

That’s why I recently visited 10 cities to tout a new initiative called Transforming Education in Kentucky, led by a task force of 30 education and community leaders.

I have two goals:

1. To re-energize and unite the business, academic, political and civic communities around our schools.

2. To develop ideas and stitch together an array of existing initiatives into a comprehensive fabric that is more powerful and more focused.

Already we’re using Senate Bill 1 to revise academic content standards ee working with other states to develop college-ready or career-ready standards ee trying to accelerate college and career readiness ee improving graduation rates through the Graduate Kentucky effort ee and applying for part of $4.35 billion available through the federal Race to the Top competition.

We do not want to duplicate these stand alone efforts but to unite them into a common strategy and long-range vision.

Let me be clear: We will evaluate what is and isn’t working in our schools, but this initiative is not an evaluation of KERA. Nor is it KERA II. We want to focus on the future, not the past.

The task force will come back with recommendations for the 2011 session in a number of key areas, including:

•Teacher recruitment and retention.

•Career and technical schools.

•The transition from preschool to K-12.

•Opportunities for college credits in high school.

•Use of technology.

•And creating assessments that measure not just knowledge but qualities that employers value, like the ability to analyze, communicate and solve problems.

I did not include “long-term funding” on that list because first, we already all know that we need to invest more in education; and second, the current recession will not allow that additional investment immediately.

The coming budget cycle - without a doubt - will be our most challenging yet.

Yes, indications suggest that the national economy is improving, but the recovery will be a long, slow process. How slow? Experts say state revenues will not return to 2008 levels until 2012.

Over the past few years, we’ve made up that gap by cutting $800 million in spending and by tapping resources like budget reserves and federal stimulus funds.

But our budget reserve is gone, and stimulus funds will soon run out.

We will continue to make tough decisions about spending, just like families are doing. Strong fiscal management has helped us weather this storm better than most states, and it’s helped us focus on priorities.

I have shielded the basic P-12 funding formula - and, to the extent I could, other areas of education - from the deep cuts made elsewhere in state government. I will work hard to do the same in the coming legislative session.

But because of the recession, I will not be able to free up a whole bundle of money to create new programs or to make significant new investments in areas like early childhood development, all-day kindergarten, and teacher pay and training.

However, that doesn’t mean we hunker down and hide.

It means we take this time to aggressively examine our education system and make sure we have the curriculum, teachers, standards and structure in place to prepare our children for the 21st Century.

If we do this, then when the sun does come out at the end of this recession, and we then have significant dollars to invest, we will know not only where to invest those dollars but how to get the most for them.

We cannot waste another minute.

Twenty years ago we made a start. Today, the mission continues.

Let’s re-commit ourselves to ensuring the future of our children.