The kids aren’t alright: Don’t throw that catch-up plan in the dustbin just yet

December 8, 2023 4:50 am

Students at Carter Traditional Elementary School in Louisville on Jan. 24, 2022. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Kentucky inaugurates a governor next week.

He’s the same guy who has served in that office for the last four years, so it might seem silly to indulge in pomp and circumstance when nothing is changing. But as Americans learned the hard way after 2020, having an election end peacefully — having voters who supported the defeated candidate accept their loss — cannot be taken for granted. A peaceful election is worth celebrating.

Usually, an inauguration offers little role for the vanquished. The loser’s job is to concede defeat on Election Night and then fade into the background, his attacks on the winner ignored and his proposals forgotten. Voters rejected his message, so why should the winner care what he said? Why should anyone? Normally, elected officials can toss the loser’s platform into the dustbin.

But Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s education proposals should not be rejected so cavalierly. Cameron and his teacher wife, Makenze, publicized an ongoing catastrophe in public policy: the slippage that students suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And their campaign offered a comprehensive Catch-Up Plan intended to target that shortfall.

Voters may have been unpersuaded by Cameron’s attacks on Gov. Andy Beshear’s COVID policies, but that doesn’t mean they think the kids are alright. Perhaps they simply didn’t believe Kentucky’s educational problems could be blamed on Beshear?

The tragedy, after all, stretches well beyond Kentucky’s borders. Multiple analyses show that students across the United States lagged badly during the COVID era, especially in mathematics. And however poor U.S. schooling might have been during the pandemic, slippage was worse in many other countries.

So learning loss isn’t a uniquely Kentucky problem traceable to Beshear. It isn’t even unique to the United States. Having to suspend in-person learning set young people back across the globe.

The pandemic’s ravages were not limited to short-term learning loss. Like it or not, public schooling delivers more than just reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. One of the most-basic lessons that students learn in school is how to be successful students — and evidence suggests that the COVID cohort lost (or perhaps never picked up) habits needed to thrive educationally.

Some students never returned to regular schooling. Among the students who did, absenteeism has spiked since the pandemic. However hard it might be to teach students in a modern classroom, it’s even harder to teach students who aren’t present at all. And spotty attendance causes a teacher’s logistical hassles to increase exponentially, hurting educational outcomes even for students who do show up.

The children of the pandemic are in danger of becoming a lost generation, educationally speaking.

Beshear offered his own education-policy platform during the gubernatorial campaign. Even if it had some chance of passing the GOP-dominated General Assembly, though, it lacked the problem-solving focus of Cameron’s. Big-ticket items included raises for pretty much everyone in the school system, universal pre-kindergarten, and shoring up educator pensions. Parts of the plan, such as the promotion of Social Emotional Learning institutes, seemed guaranteed to turn off Republicans.

However advisable Beshear’s proposals might have been, he offered few direct remedies for the pandemic’s damage, relying mostly on generic educational improvements to do the trick.

The same cannot be said of Cameron’s targeted plan. Cameron did want to hike pay for teachers, who have fallen behind financially because of inflation, but much of his package grappled with learning loss: money for tutoring, for reading intervention, for rewarding experienced teachers and enticing former teachers back into the classroom.

It’s probably unrealistic to hope that Beshear will take pages from his opponent’s playbook, even though he can do so now without seeming to validate Cameron’s criticisms. Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman showed little enthusiasm for the catch-up proposal, and the education industry naturally prefers their costlier plan.

Still, jumping into the driver’s seat on educational reform, and helping guide a bipartisan package through the legislative process, would be a great way for Beshear to maintain his national prominence. Americans are concerned about education policy. And now that Beshear’s guaranteed a second term, Kentucky’s GOP leaders have less incentive to throw up roadblocks just for the sake of foiling him.

The more-interesting question is whether Republican leaders in the General Assembly would see Cameron’s Catch-Up Plan as a way to deliver for their constituents. Cameron’s proposal may have failed to launch him into the governor’s mansion, but it stood out from much of his campaign rhetoric — because instead of offering red meat for the right wing, it apparently drew on the insights and policy recommendations of prominent education experts seeking to reform public schools.

A level-headed approach to repairing public education — one that pays special attention to the pandemic’s lost generation — might not be a politician’s straightest path to prominence. But if Beshear wants to show he can work across party lines, and if Kentucky Republicans want to show that they’re ready to govern, then a legislative package that delivers much-needed pay raises to teachers in exchange for reasonable school reforms might be the safest path.

Kentucky’s a conservative state, so many government policies can be a hard sell. But education policy has long been an exception to that rule. Mainstream Republicans usually embrace government investment in schooling, because unlike many domestic programs, public schools do not try to impose equality of outcomes. Public schools seek to create equality of opportunity, a goal shared across much of the ideological spectrum.

So Kentucky’s Republican supermajority should keep alive the Catch-Up Plan promoted by their party’s gubernatorial nominee, despite his loss at the ballot box. And once Gov. Andy Beshear finishes his victory lap next week, he should consider adopting some of his opponent’s education proposal as his own.

Because if Beshear and the Republican General Assembly can figure out a mutually agreeable way to help the pandemic generation catch up, rather than leaving them behind, there should be plenty enough political credit to go around.

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D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.