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Gov. Andy Beshear announces education budget proposal, with an 11% increase for school staff

Beshear stands at lectern, microphone with right hand slightly raised. Outdoor environment with white metal siding background, green foliage.
J. Tyler Franklin
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LPM
Andy Beshear

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear unveiled his $1.1 billion education plan Wednesday, saying he hopes to strengthen Kentucky’s public education system by reducing teacher vacancies and attracting more talent to the state.

Beshear’s plan includes an 11% raise for all school personnel, across-the-board raises for school staff and full funding for student transportation, as the state’s largest school district struggles with a revamped busing system. The plan would cost an estimated $1.1 billion, Beshear said.

The 9-point proposal, which Beshear said includes only the highlights of his budget plan for education, also focused on increasing classroom resources, teacher student loan forgiveness and universal preschool,a policy that has been a sticking point between the Democratic governor and GOP-dominated legislature throughout his first term.

According to the National Education Association, which Beshear cited, Kentucky ranks 44th in the country in average teacher starting salary and 40th in average overall teacher salary. In order to catch up to other states, Beshear said the 11% boost across the board is necessary to retain and attract teachers and other school personnel

“The biggest threat to continued learning loss are vacancies,” Beshear said. “And our kids fall behind when we don't have the very best of the best. And if we don't compensate more, then we're not going to be able to give them the best.”

Beshear’s proposal may look familiar. He’s put forward similar plans for raises and more school resources in the past that have not been taken up by the legislature. Earlier this year, he asked the legislature to give school staff a 5% raise, launch a teacher student loan forgiveness program and fund universal public pre-K. GOP leaders largely eschewed the $200 million plan.

Beshear said he hoped that, in the next General Assembly meeting in January 2024, he will be able to push through the political noise.

“Thankfully, this next session of the General Assembly will be after this election; there will be less politics at play, and hopefully everyone can sit down,” Beshear said. “Because I plan on still being here — knowing that I can't run for reelection after that — and having the conversations about how much we have to invest because of how far we've fallen behind.”

Beshear also highlighted gaps in the transportation funding by the state legislature, recommending that the state legislature fully fund each district’s transportation needs. According to an analysis from the progressive-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, the state budget has only covered about 55% of school transportation expenses since 2005.

Beshear partially attributed the recent transportation debacle in Jefferson County Public Schoolsunderfunding from the state legislature. The district has long experienced bus driver shortages.

“Imagine having that extra funding, but then imagine being able to pay your bus drivers 11% more,” Beshear said. “[District Superintendent] Marty Polio and the school system are taking responsibility and they should…But at the same time, the General Assembly is also at least partially responsible by not stepping up and providing the funding and adequate pay to attract enough bus drivers to get the job done.”

Although the education plan comes with a hefty price tag, Beshear’s State Budget Director John Hicks said he believes there is enough room in the budget thanks to a significant budget surplus expected at the end of the fiscal year.

“In essence, we have $1.4 billion in headroom for funding and new spending as we move into fiscal year ‘25,” Hicks said.

On Tuesday, Republican Daniel Cameron — Beshear’s adversary in the upcoming gubernatorial election — announced his own education plan, focusing on reversing “learning loss” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cameron attributed declined test scores to Beshear’s decision to move schools online during the early part of the pandemic.

“Governor Beshear has no plan to address this generational learning loss crisis. And even if he did, he has no serious relationships with the General Assembly. He can't do anything about these problems,” Cameron said. “But I can, and I will.”

Cameron did not suggest universal raises in his education plan, but he did recommend creating a universal starting salary for teachers at $41,500. Under Beshear’s plan, the average starting pay for teachers, based on data from the Kentucky Department of Education, would be $44,573.

“When all you do is raise the starting salary, it creates compression, and you lose teachers that may have three, four, five, six or seven years of experience when they're paid almost the exact same thing as someone who is brand new,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he will release more details of his plan to boost education in the coming weeks as he continues to outline his recommendations for next year’s budget.

Some political analysts have attributed Beshear’s narrow win in 2019 to teachers who felt slighted by former GOP Gov. Matt Bevin’s brash criticisms of education advocates during protests over proposed changes to pension benefits. Over the past several weeks, Cameron has attempted to woo teachers back to the Republican Party by apologizing for his predecessor's comments.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, a former educator, said at the news conference Wednesday, “[Teachers] don't deserve to be treated like political footballs. What they deserve is a governor who has their back and a lieutenant governor who has walked in their shoes. They shouldn't be subjected to a passion tax, taking less salary benefits resources simply because they love the work and the kids that they serve.”

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.