The internecine warfare of our politics often prevents focus on long-term problems. And, boy, do we have them.
Recent stories laid bare two looming icebergs that will sink Kentucky’s future prosperity: Most of our children can’t read or do math at grade level, and half the state’s adults aren’t working.
Starting with education, the most recent test scores are – charitably – atrocious. About 40% of Kentucky students are reading at grade level and about 30% are proficient in math, according to the spring 2021 testing done across the state. Formerly known as the K-PREP, the testing is now called the Kentucky Summative Assessment.
The scores were even worse in Louisville, where “roughly one in three students in Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, are reading on grade level. A little more than one-fifth of JCPS students are where they’re supposed to be in math ...,” according to the Louisville Courier Journal’s test score analysis.
It’s obvious that COVID school closures, which were draconian and unnecessary according to international experts, dramatically derailed the academic path for thousands of Kentucky children and exacerbated the gulf between rich and poor. Jefferson County schools were among the last to reopen, and keeping Louisville’s children at home was a disastrous policy decision.
“Gaps in reading scores between JCPS students living at or near the poverty line and their wealthier classmates appear to have grown,” said the Courier Journal data analysis, which tracks with Yale University’s researchers who found “children living in the poorest 20% of U.S. neighborhoods will experience the most negative and long-lasting effects of school closures.”
Incredibly, the answer from our state’s educational regime was to denigrate the test and the results. Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass tried – and failed – to cancel the test altogether, while JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the Biden administration denying Glass’ request to cancel was “probably the most disappointed I’ve been in a governmental agency.”
They knew they had failed. They just didn’t want the taxpayers and parents to know. Instead of attacking Biden, perhaps Pollio and the teachers’ union-fueled school board should have considered resigning in shame.
If you were the head of a company with a 70% to 80% product failure rate, you’d be run out of town in disgrace. Instead, our state’s education leaders are more upset that we know about the failure than the failure itself.
What’s to become of a generation of children who have fallen so far behind, trapped in school systems led by self-interested incompetents? Do we have a plan to catch them up and give them a fighting chance at a prosperous future? This may be the most impactful question facing Kentucky policymakers during the next several years.
And they better not ignore it, as the state is already in a labor crisis.
“Kentucky leads nation in workforce participation decline” blared a recent headline, describing a report released by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce that gets uglier and uglier with every turn of the page.
“As of June, more than 1.5 million Kentucky adults were neither employed nor looking for work,” the report said. That’s unhealthy in a state of 4.5 million people, and it ranked Kentucky third-lowest in the nation for workforce participation, ahead of only Mississippi and West Virginia, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
In the past 20 years, Kentucky has gone from 64% of its adults working or looking for work to 56%, numbers that grow even bleaker among prime working age adults (25-54), which has declined by more than 5%.
“Nationally, we saw the opposite. The number of prime working-age adults in the workforce throughout the U.S. increased by about 1%. Kentucky adults who are in their prime working years not only participate in the workforce at lower rates compared to the rest of the nation, but we also have fewer of them than we used to,” the chamber’s report found.
Kentucky’s problem: Fewer people working less than ever.
The urban/rural divide that plagues Kentucky in so many ways reared its head in this report, with the “golden triangle” of Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky faring far better than many rural parts of the state, especially eastern Kentucky.
What’s the problem? Why aren’t our people working? Substance abuse is an obvious issue, as is the overall health of our state. But have we made it too easy for people to simply not go to work every day? The answer seems to be yes.
“Research suggests that aspects of other government assistance programs may negatively impact workforce participation outright,” the report said, and specifically tagged Social Security disability payments as a long-term problem. We are paying people to stay home, and too many folks are more than happy to game the system and accept a meager existence.
“Kentucky has the fourth-highest percentage of its adult population (ages 16-64) receiving Social Security Disability Insurance at 7.6%, just behind Arkansas, Alabama, and West Virginia. Research has shown that SSDI may especially discourage workforce participation for individuals on the margins of program eligibility.”
There’s a war on work, and Kentucky’s labor participation rate is among the casualties. The policymakers who have doomed so many Kentuckians to a life of government dependence are robbing them of the chance to achieve their full human potential and the state of a more prosperous future.
We cannot – must not – accept these conditions. Damning kids to a lifetime of poverty because adults were too shortsighted and beholden to special interests to open the schools? Dooming adults to a lifetime of government handouts, barely scratching by in a world that offers untold opportunities?
This shouldn’t be acceptable to either party. Fortunately, we have the data that define the problems. Now we must demand from our leaders a plan on how to solve them.
– Scott Jennings is a Republican adviser, CNN commentator and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He can be reached at Scott@RunSwitchPR.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.