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Education Issues in Kentucky

Renee Shaw and guests discuss education. Guests: State Sen. Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington); State Rep. Killian Timoney (R-Nicholasville); Sally Sugg, Ed.D., Superintendent, Shelby Co. Public Schools; Rob Clayton, Superintendent, Warren Co. Public Schools; Brigitte Blom, President and CEO, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence; and Sarah Durand, KY Forum for Rights, Economics and Education.
Season 30 Episode 22 Length 56:33 Premiere: 08/21/23


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

After broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Panelists Discuss Funding Student Transportation, PayingTeachers, Student Discipline, and More

With the new school year well underway in Kentucky, administrators find themselves facing some familiar problems, including student transportation challenges, funding concerns, and a shortage of staff from teachers to bus drivers and custodians.

Despite intensive recruiting efforts, Shelby County Public Schools Superintendent Sally Sugg says her district has 10 certified staff vacancies and 10 openings among her classified staff.

“We do have a lot of long-term (substitute teachers) and some emergency certified staff that are holding down the fort,” says Sugg.

In Bowling Green, Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton finds himself in a similar situation with more than 30 open positions among his teaching and support staff.

“We’ve tried to be very creative,” says Clayton. “We have more than a dozen student-teachers leading classrooms in our schools today.”

Funding and Staffing Shortfalls Plague Student Transportation

Clayton says it has been especially difficult to find special education teachers and bus drivers. The challenges of finding and retaining drivers has become so great that Clayton says his director of transportation takes bus routes every morning and afternoon.

Student transportation issues made headlines earlier this month when Jefferson County Public Schools experienced a disastrous first day of classes because of significant delays in getting students to and from school. Some children did not return home that first night until nearly 10 p.m. District officials closed schools for more than a week to give drivers and transportation coordinators a chance to resolve the many issues.

“When we talk about the debacle that occurred on that first day of school, we were partly to blame for that,” says state Sen. Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington). “We recognized that two years ago and didn’t do anything.”

Thomas explains that a legislative task force on school funding that met during the summer of 2021 recommended the General Assembly fully fund all student transportation as required by state law.

Actually, lawmakers have fallen short on that mandate for more than 15 years, according to an editorial by Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Since 2005, he says, the legislature has appropriated as little as 55 percent of the money needed to bus children to and from school. Under the current budget, the funding is at 70 percent.

That means superintendents have to find the rest of the money elsewhere. Clayton says Warren County is spending $4 million in local funds to fill the gap in their transportation budget.

“That is a system designed to fail,” says Clayton. “We need the funding to provide transportation for our students.”

Yet with Jefferson County making national news for its transportation woes, critics say more money is not the answer. Sarah Durand of the Kentucky Forum for Rights, Economics, and Education says the state already gives JCPS, the state’s largest school district, some $45 million a year for student transportation.

“Every legislator that I talk to about this issue has said why would we keep throwing good money after bad we if you can’t do better than that,” says Durand. “The real issue isn’t the funding. The real issue is taking the initiative, having the bus drivers know their routes. They spent so much time focused on so many other things other than the basics of getting kids to school.”

Clayton says those who criticize JCPS and other districts over busing failures don’t understand the complexity of operating a transportation system that may serve thousands of students, operate over hundreds of miles of busy city streets or winding country roads, and do so safely and on time day after day. He says the pool of available drivers is limited given that they have to work a split shift for limited compensation.

“Can the typical person find this to be a livable wage?” says Clayton. “The answer is no, it’s not even remotely close… We have to have support to make it a more desirable position.”

Full transportation funding should be a state appropriation that everyone can support, argues Brigitte Blom, president and CEO of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. As for the shortage of bus drivers, she says that’s another symptom of the workforce issues that plague the commonwealth, which she contends are partially fueled by a lack of affordable child care options for parents.

“This is a root issue that transcends education that we need to figure out and it’s not going away any time soon,” says Blom.

In terms of what unfolded in Metro Louisville on the first day of classes, Rep. Killian Timoney (R-Nicholasville) says JCPS faced two additional challenges: The district launched a series of new school start times and a massive new student assignment plan that allows children to attend their neighborhood schools. He concurs with Clayton and Blom that Jefferson County and other districts are struggling to keep a full contingent of bus drivers due to issues over pay, working hours and benefits, drug testing, and discipline issues on buses.

“Bus drivers need to be completely protected,” says Timoney. “They’ve got so many lives on those buses and they need to be allowed to have a safe workplace.”

Addressing an Increase in Student Misconduct

Superintendents Clayton and Sugg say student discipline is a concern aboard buses and in the classroom. Clayton says he’s seen an increase in misbehavior since the COVID pandemic, especially among younger students. Sugg says she’s seeing discipline challenges unlike anything she’s experienced in 40 years as an educator. She says that can’t all be blamed on disruptions caused by the pandemic.

““Our schools are just a microcosm of what’s happening in society,” says Sugg. “Our behavior in society is really alarming and so it just follows that you’re going to see that in schools.”

Another difference facing schools now, according to Sugg and Clayton, is a change of attitude among some parents. They say a growing number of mothers and fathers may decide to challenge disciplinary actions toward their children rather than work with teachers and administrators to correct bad behavior.

“Many of our parents are not trusting of what’s happening in schools and I find that so unfortunate,” Sugg says.

The 2023 General Assembly passed legislation that gives teachers and principals more options in how they address student misconduct.

House Bill 538 says that students removed from the same classroom for bad behavior three times within a 30-day period will be deemed “chronically disruptive” and may be suspended from school under existing district policy. The legislation also requires schools to expel students for at least 12 months who physically assault or threaten other students, faculty, or staff. They may also be expelled for bringing a weapon to school or for possessing drugs for the purpose of sale or distribution at school. Any such expulsions would be ordered by the local school board.

Timoney says HB 538 was the result of work by a wide range of stakeholders who want to make schools safe for students, teachers, and staff. He says lawmakers should follow-up with additional legislation to provide supports and education alternatives to students who face disciplinary actions.

Whether it’s misconduct by students or mistrust among parents, Blom says schools are now experiencing the political polarization that is dividing the nation at large.

“What we’re seeing should be a call to action to us as adults to get back to a civil society where we have healthy discourse and we’re modeling that for our young people,” says Blom.

Politics in Public Education

That polarization played into the debate over another piece of legislation passed earlier this year. Senate Bill 150 addresses school policies on transgender students and instruction of human sexuality. The measure, which also includes a ban on gender-affirming care for youth, drew intense debate among lawmakers, educators, and advocacy groups during the session, and is a prominent topic in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.

Sugg and Clayton says these issues have not been a problem in their districts because teachers and administrators have always sought to involve parents in how to best address the needs of their children.

“I feel like the legislature spent a lot of time hashing that out... when many of us really already had that worked out,” says Sugg.

“We want to try to accommodate any reasonable ask of our students,” adds Clayton. “The law did not change that approach – our goal is for every student to feel comfortable in our schools.”

While the two superintendents say their districts are implementing both the spirit and the letter of the law, some legislators say SB 150 must be changed.

“It’s a nightmarish bill,” says Thomas, who argues it could impact how subjects as diverse as history and art might be taught. “What it does is imperil our education system and all the opportunity we have to provide a well-rounded, robust education.”

Beyond the debate over trans youth and human sexuality, both candidates for governor have pledged pay increases for Kentucky’s educators. Cameron would boost the pay for starting teachers to $41,500, while Beshear calls for an 11 percent pay increase for all school personnel.

Even with those proposed pay raises, Timoney, who is a former educator and school administrator, says Kentucky still lags behind other states in teacher pay. He says Tennessee has raised the starting salary for new teachers to $50,000. He contends that will make it hard for some Kentucky districts to retain their educators.

“If you’re within three counties of the Tennessee border, there will be an exodus,” says Timoney.

Beshear, a Democrat, has also called for fully funding student transportation as well as teacher pensions and medical benefits, and launching state-funded pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds. Cameron, a Republican, proposes more math and reading tutors, tighter classroom discipline, compliance with school resource officer mandates, a reading interventionist for every district, and a new stipend for student teachers.

Sugg says many districts already have tutoring services as well as interventionists to help students who are struggling with reading and math. She says she’s more concerned with how districts will find the teachers to take on the extra duties proposed by Cameron.

Clayton says overall school funding remains a critical issue for districts, especially with unfunded mandates like the SROs the legislature required districts to hire without providing them the money to do it. He says SEEK, the per-pupil funding provided by the state to schools, has not kept pace with inflation.

“Every school district is operating on less money to educate their kids today than 15 years ago,” says Clayton. “It’s a statewide challenge. It took years to create this (problem), it’s going to take years for us to correct it.”

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Season 30 Episodes

2024 Legislative Preview: Part Two

S30 E33 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 12/04/23

2024 Legislative Preview

S30 E32 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 11/20/23

Analysts Discuss What to Expect on Election Day 2023

S30 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/06/23

Candidate Conversations: Lieutenant Governor

S30 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/30/23

Candidate Conversations: Governor

S30 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/23/23

Political Analysts Forecast the 2023 General Election

S30 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/17/23

Secretary of State; Commissioner of Agriculture

S30 E27 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/09/23

Auditor of Public Accounts; State Treasurer

S30 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/02/23

Kentucky's Economy, Jobs and Taxes

S30 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/25/23

Higher Education in Kentucky

S30 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/18/23

Kentucky's Health Care Challenges

S30 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/11/23

Education Issues in Kentucky

S30 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/21/23

Fancy Farm Preview and Kentucky Politics

S30 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/31/23

Kentucky's Energy Needs

S30 E20 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 07/17/23

Artificial Intelligence

S30 E19 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 07/10/23

Jobs, Inflation and the Economy

S30 E18 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/26/23

SB 150 and LGBTQ Issues

S30 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/19/23

Horse Racing Safety

S30 E16 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 06/12/23

A Discussion of Gun Laws

S30 E15 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/05/23

Recapping The 2023 Kentucky Primary

S30 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/22/23

2023 Primary Election Preview

S30 E13 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/15/23

Republican Candidate for Secretary of State

S30 E12 Length 15:00 Premiere Date 05/08/23

Republican Candidates for Governor

S30 E11 Length 1:29:20 Premiere Date 05/01/23

Candidates for Treasurer and Commissioner of Agriculture

S30 E10 Length 1:15:06 Premiere Date 04/24/23

Challenges Facing Kentucky Schools

S30 E9 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 04/17/23

Policy Analysts Recap the 2023 General Assembly

S30 E8 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 04/10/23

Recap of the 2023 Kentucky General Assembly

S30 E7 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 04/03/23

Kentucky Legislation on LGBTQ+ Youth

S30 E6 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 03/20/23

Student Discipline Legislation

S30 E5 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/13/23

Gambling Proposals in the Kentucky General Assembly

S30 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/27/23

Kentucky's Teacher Shortage

S30 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/20/23

Exploring Local Government Issues

S30 E2 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 02/13/23

Child Abuse and Neglect in Kentucky

S30 E1 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/06/23

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