Young Kentuckians desperately need more from their elected officials

Republished from Kentucky Lantern


The annual national KIDS COUNT Data Book includes more data into which to dive than column inches allow.  But an overview of the report reminds us that Kentucky is not the best place in America to be young.  Or the second-best place. Or the tenth or the 20th or even 30th.  Instead, the 2024 report card on the well-being of our nation’s kids plops Kentucky in the bottom rung of states at 38th.

More than 200,000 Kentucky kids woke up this morning in poverty. This report saw a stark rise in child and teen deaths — much of which is linked to guns. And almost 300,000 children live in households in which parents lack secure employment. Those troubling findings should, in fact, be bipartisan catalysts around which the governor and the General Assembly grab onto as foci for systemic policy change during the 2025 legislative session.

While the report offers food for thought in areas ranging from economic security to health, for the first time in its over 30-year history, the KIDS COUNT report focused on the policy domain of education. A timely and important focus as the commonwealth’s students face long-standing and new challenges post-pandemic.

And speaking of that first KIDS COUNT year in 1990, do you remember?  1990 — when media critics predicted “Seinfeld” would be canceled during its initial season.  1990 — when the largest McDonalds in the world opened in Moscow and gas had soared to $1.15 per gallon? And even more difficult to comprehend — in 1990, THE preeminent national exemplar when it came to K-12 education reform was Kentucky.  

On the heels of the Kentucky Supreme Court decision about funding equity, Democrats and Republicans from rural and urban Kentucky in the General Assembly along with the governor came together and passed the (inter)nationally acclaimed Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA).  

Even a cursory look at the Data Book’s Education section 34 years later is a cause for alarm. On EVERY metric — from fourth grade reading scores to eighth grade math proficiency, from young children in early education settings to high school graduation rates — the results show decline. And that doesn’t even include supplemental measures which reveal that 1 in 4 Kentucky students are chronically absent and the much-discussed, seldom addressed racial achievement gap is exploding rather than being mitigated.

Again, the regrettable reality of word counts precludes a thorough discussion of policy solutions — and there are common ground and achievable ideas to be tackled!  But more than any data point or policy issue, the 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book reminds us that folks on the local level — county judges and faith communities and nonprofits and parents and, of course, educators — have to coalesce around what is good for those young people in our schools to turn this tide of decline.  

That means regardless of the outcome of the school choice ballot initiative, we must talk about reading and math proficiency rather than hot button social agendas in Frankfort’s education conversations. It means we apply research to the burgeoning issue of chronic absenteeism and what leads to it rather than yielding to the politically motivated nonsense that dominated talk about truancy this past session. It means that we have to deepen the important wrap-around services our kids so desperately need, such as tutoring programs, after-school care and mental health supports. And it means we must directly address the K-12 workforce crisis in imaginative ways. 

The import of this report’s focus on education is a clarion call for our elected leaders in Frankfort to get down to the business of kids — and ask themselves not what national partisan voices demand but what our children should expect from them. There was a time when kids’ interests were paramount in Frankfort; that is simply not the case in 2024. We need to get that commitment back if Kentucky’s place in the national ranking is going to cease to be a collective embarrassment when it comes to our kids.


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