Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Teacher Appreciation Week

This is our week to honor the incredible team of teachers that we are so blessed to have in the Owensboro Public Schools.
We truly appreciate the meaningful work that our teachers do every day, not just during this week where the accomplishments of teachers are celebrated in classrooms all across our district, state and nation.
I am reminded every single day that OPS teachers are dedicated to the success of each and every child.  They provide hope to the most vulnerable young citizens in our community.  They provide stability in attitude and attention to every detail of a child’s life and they understand the profound influence they have on the lives of kids.  OPS teachers are meaningful partners in the raising of our community’s children.
On behalf of the school board and our entire city, it is my privilege to extend a heartfelt message of gratitude for the work that our teachers do.  It is true that teaching is a calling, not a profession, and I am so honored that our teachers have chosen the Owensboro Public Schools as a place to make a difference in the lives of others.
I encourage our community and school district to join me in appreciating our teachers this week and in the weeks and years to come.
Nicholas Brake, Ph.D., Superintendent 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Dr. Stephen Pruitt brought partnership, humility and respect to his tenure at KDE

I would like, on behalf of the Owensboro Public Schools, to recognize and thank Dr. Stephen Pruitt for his time in service to our state education system.  He was forced to leave his role as Commissioner in a heavy-handed way by the current regime in Frankfort.   Because of that, it is important that we stop and take note of the class that he brought to the position from the time he started until his very last comment as Commissioner yesterday.

Dr. Pruitt and Congressman Brett Guthrie with students at the
Owensboro Innovation Academy in  September 2016. 
He has worked as a servant leaders for ALL students in ALL Kentucky schools since his appointment in the fall of 2015.  He came to Kentucky with a highly qualified resume as a high school chemistry teacher and has also served at the state level as deputy education commissioner in Georgia.

Dr. Pruitt has visited schools all around the Commonwealth, including many in Owensboro.  He was very teacher-focused and distinguished himself by reaching out and seeking input from all constituent groups-- educators, parents and community leaders.

Perhaps the best example of Dr. Pruitt's leadership occured on January 23rd after the tragedy in Marshall County.  After receiving the call about the school shooting at Marshall County High School, he and many KDE staff members traveled to Benton to provide support.  He advised his staff not to bring suits, ties, and dresses, but jeans.  They were not going for media or public attention, but to support the people of Marshall County by working alongside them in their time of need.

Dr. Pruitt shared his experience with State School Chiefs from around the country in March saying "I don't care what your political persuasion is, what I care about is that the children that need us.  We have an incredible role to play in partnering with districts and educators."

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Pruitt for the first time at a function in Washington D.C. at the Aspen Institute a few months before he got the job in Kentucky.  My first impression was that, despite all the state and national-level work he had done, he still thought like a teacher.  He put the students first and understood the value of great teaching as the centerpiece of education.

Dr. Pruitt, thank you for your partnership, humility and never-ending respect for the work of educators--- traits that have become increasingly rare among the political leadership in Frankfort.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Tax policy that supports education is good for the economy

As a superintendent, I am often asked the question by community leaders about how business can best support public schools.

For a long time, I answered this question by thinking about partnerships, philanthropy, or other programmatic ways businesses and communities can help public schools.  But lately, my answer has tended more toward the policy front.  I tell them the best way to support education is to support a fiscal policy that focuses on investments rather than taxes.

In the Owensboro Independent District, where nearly three out of four students live in poverty, I have seen the ill-effects of the growing inequality and eroding middle class in our society.  Our district has had to do more with less to serve the needs of our students and families. 

That is a concern because the U.S. poverty rate for school age children is higher than any advanced industrial nation in Europe, North America or Asia.  A majority of public school children in 21 states were low income in 2013.   As a region, southern states like Kentucky have the greatest percentage of total student population represented by low-income children.

The achievement gap between children from high and low income families is 30 to 40 percent worse among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier.

Behind this achievement gap is a funding gap that is growing larger in Kentucky.  The equity gap that shrank in Kentucky with the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 has reversed.  The funding gap between districts in the highest quintile and the lowest quintile, where my district ranks, is nearing pre-KERA levels.   Public education in America, and in Kentucky, is not so much broken as it is under-resourced to educate all children—especially the most disadvantaged.

Even though tax revenue in most states has recovered to above 2008 levels, most states provide less support per pupil for elementary and secondary schools than before the Great Recession. Kentucky is one of only 12 states where funding per student is below the 2008 level.  In fact, the Commonwealth’s 15.8 percent drop ranks third worst in the nation.

Average salaries for public school teachers declined by 1.67 percent in constant dollars, for the decade ending in the 2014-2015 school year, 25 states, including Kentucky, had a drop in real teacher salary over that decade.

The trend seems to be continued underfunding of public K-12 education as a consequence of fiscal policy.   And Kentucky is poised to replicate the unsuccessful model that has devastated education in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.  The research overwhelmingly shows that this is a destructive approach which actually hurts the state’s economy.

The states which have made the greatest investment in building the capacity of their public-school system to meet the educational needs of all their children, from the poorest on up, have experienced stronger economic growth than states that did not.

Indeed, the high-investing states also had larger increases in worker wages over the same time period, as well as a statistically meaningful advantage in state level GDP growth.

As it turns out, investment in K-12 education, higher education and public infrastructure are the only policy decisions at the state level which have a statistically meaningful correlation to economic outcomes, according to research conducted by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

A rigorous 2012 study commissioned by the U.S. Small Business Administration found
“no evidence of an economically significant effect of state tax portfolios on entrepreneurial activity.” The Truman Institute at the University of Missouri found that when benefit of a tax break is measured against the economic loss generated by spending cuts—there is always a net economic loss.  The Congressional Budget Office found no correlation between tax policy and job creation--private sector demand is what counts.

More recently, several states experimented with tax cuts with little obvious success.  The most notorious case is Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback promised that a moderate tax cut for individuals and a big tax cut for businesses would stimulate the economy.  They cut top personal income tax rate from 6 percent to 4.5 percent in 2012, projected to reduce revenue by $920 million in FY2017, income tax as share of state revenue fell from 50 percent to 40 percent.

Since the 2012 tax cut, however, Kansas’s economy has lagged behind neighboring states, and the state’s budget has been in tatters. Last year, in the face of poor growth and spending needs, the Republican-led state legislature reversed much of Brownback’s original tax cut. 

Reams of evidence from other states are equally unsupportive of the supply-side notion that tax cuts boost growth.  Minnesota provides an interesting contrast to Kansas.  They raised income taxes in 2013, investing heavily in education.  Where jobs evaporated in Kansas, Minnesota experienced job growth.

 A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2015 found similar results.  Four of the five states that enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in the last few years have had slower job growth since enacting their cuts than the nation as a whole.  Four of the six states that cut personal income taxes significantly in the 2000s have seen their share of national employment decline since enacting cuts.  States with the biggest cuts in the 1990s grew fewer jobs during the next economic cycle compared to states without large cuts.

The fiscal policy being pursued in many state legislatures are damaging public education at the expense of tax breaks benefitting the wealthiest individuals and businesses.  The latest attempt at “tax reform” in Kentucky follows this same model.

Prior to my tenure as superintendent, I served as a local economic development professional that worked closely with business leaders for more than seven years. I recognize the importance of a competitive rate for business.  But corporate profits have grown by 44 percent since the Great Recession, far outpacing hourly earnings and GDP.  The evidence simply does not point to tax policy as the driver of economic growth, especially at the state level.  The evidence points to investments in three areas, K-12 education, higher education, and public infrastructure.

Business leaders know the value of a good investment.  Fiscal policy that supports strong public investments will benefit our economy more in the long run than a tax system that does not raise the revenue needed to move our Commonwealth forward.   It is time to reverse this trend in Kentucky before we go the way of Oklahoma and Kansas.

Nicholas Brake is Superintendent of the Owensboro (KY) Independent School District and member of the national governing board of the American Association of School Superintendents

To read full paper on State Fiscal Policy Supporting Education visit the link. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Thank you OPS educators

OPS Family,

I do not know where to begin in addressing the latest events in Frankfort other than to say thank you.

Thank you for the work you do everyday.  Thank you for the dignified and principled way you, as educators, have responded to the events of the past 24 hours.

Today, I witnessed many of you gathered around the front of school buildings entering together and vowing to do your job better today than yesterday.  Despite the undignified actions in our statehouse, our teachers put children first today as they do every day.

It was in these moments that hopefulness emerged for me.  The nobility and dignity of the teaching profession and the love that our teachers have for children cannot be defeated.  This is really the beginning of a new day for our collective work in promoting and supporting public education in Kentucky.

The bill passed yesterday will significantly impact the future of our profession more than those of us currently in the system. I am gravely concerned about that, but overall I am hopeful.   Hopeful about the prospect of change and the support I see for what we do.  Our community is supportive and stands with us and our work as educators.

Remember, you and your students are the driving force behind the future of our commonwealth.  I am proud to stand alongside you to help support the work you do every day, and proud to be a part of our great school district.
Have a safe and enjoyable Spring Break!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Student Walkouts at OHS and all of the USA

On March 14, 2018, at 10 a.m. students at Owensboro High School joined millions of their counterparts nationwide walking out of their high schools to call attention to issues related to school violence. 

Since exercising their First Amendment right, many students have encountered both supporting and opposing voices—a good lesson for high school students.  Welcome to democracy!  When you publicly express yourself, you must be cognizant of the consequences of your speech.

As a superintendent, I have run into similar sentiments, with many either thanking or chastising our district for allowing students to protest during the school day. 

To those who question the decision, I admit, this one was a tough call.  For me, there were a few compelling issues to allow the students to participate in the manner they did.

First, it was a national protest taking place at thousands of high schools all over the country.  Most of the walkouts took place, as ours did, outside the walls of the school, in the public square. 

Second, the walkout was a student-organized and a student-led activity, participation was optional.  The students approached the administration at OHS about the event.  School officials proactively worked with the students to make sure the event was peaceful and conforming to standards of public assembly afforded to all under the Constitution.  OHS leadership also worked closely with the Owensboro Police Department to assure the safety of the students that chose to participate.

Third, it is important to note that students do not surrender their constitutional right to free speech and expression at school.  The Supreme Court of the United States in Tinker vs. Des Moines Board of Education said schools could not deny students these rights provided the speech is not “substantially disruptive.”  In our opinion, working with students to take part in a 17-minute national walkout was less disruptive than denying them that right.  Denying them would have caused more disorder and discipline issues.  Some of the students would have made the decision to walkout anyway without our support or protection, just as other students around the country did in some jurisdictions where such support was not afforded to them.

 Lastly, the OHS administration took great pains to make sure students with multiple perspectives could participate and be heard.  It seems that some feel like the district allowed students to participate as a way to promote a liberal anti-gun agenda.   That is an oversimplification of an issue that is far more complex than dichotomously pro or con around the Second Amendment.  Very few students I have interacted with in any of our high schools are advocating the elimination of the Second Amendment.  To most students, this is a nuanced and a many-sided issue –  their understanding of it, as well as current events in the news are equally complex. The school respected and encouraged the views of students on all sides of this issue. 

This generation of students was born around the time of the Columbine High School shooting.  They have grown up in a school setting where lockdowns are more significant than fire drills and can be categorized as an integral part any random school day.  The tragedies at Margaret Stoneman Douglass High School have ignited a wave of student activism all over the nation.  This moment is an important time for this generation because students are finding their voices on all sides of this issue.   Our job as educators is to support them as they become citizens in a democracy. 

In trying to mute their speech, we as a school system would have failed our students and conveyed to them that their voice did not matter. 

Instead, we allowed them 17 minutes in the public square with millions of their counterparts around the country, taking part in one of the most teachable moments in the messy history of American democracy.  The students were well behaved, they returned to class without disruption, and carried on the remainder of the school day as normal. 

Whether we agree or disagree with their point of view, we as members of the public should applaud the fact that students are becoming actively engaged in public life.  As a school district, we did not support any one particular point of view held by students in the walkout.  We merely supported our students and their right to be heard as citizens of our great country.