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KERA’s slow, steady progress

If you’re looking for a ray of optimism in this season of political gloom, check out “For all Kids: How Kentucky is closing the high school graduation gap for low-income students.”

“Kentucky is a state with rates of poverty that exceed the nation’s, but with graduation rates for low-income students that are its envy,” reports the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington, D.C.

Four Kentucky foundations and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati helped fund the research and report.

Nationally, high school graduation rates for low-income students trail those of their more affluent peers by 15 percentage points, according to the report.

In Kentucky, the gap was just 1 percentage point, the best in the nation, in 2012-13. Kentucky’s gap spread to 7 percentage points in 2013-14, the nation’s fourth best.

“Even though Kentucky’s low-income graduation rate decreased slightly in 2014 to 84 percent and the gap grew largely because graduation rates for non-low-income students continued to rise, the state remains near the top in the nation for boosting graduation rates for low-income students, proving that this achievement is not an anomaly.

“In fact, Kentucky’s progress reflects steady improvement since 2003 and shows that the state’s efforts to raise graduation rates and increase educational attainment have paid off.”

In 2014, nearly 70 percent of Kentucky’s school districts reported overall graduation rates of 90 percent or higher. The graduation rate for low-income Kentuckians was 84 percent compared to a 74.6 percent for low-income students nationally.

One big caveat: The report does not look at other graduation and achievement gaps, such as those affecting black, Hispanic, disabled and non-English speaking students, areas in which Kentucky lags.

The report traces Kentucky’s “slow and steady” progress from the historic Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that required lawmakers to equalize funding among school districts and the resulting enactment of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.

It focuses on case studies from Jefferson, Floyd, Leslie and Owsley county schools and the city of Covington.

Meanwhile, in its “2016’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems,” personal-finance website WalletHub that produces research reports, ranked Kentucky 17th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

WalletHub used 17 metrics — 13 having to do with academic quality and four related to school safety. Kentucky ranked 15th in academic quality — not bad for a state that 30 years ago brought up the rear on most education measures.

WalletHub also categorized Kentucky as one of 12 states that have both a “strong school system” and “low spending” based on per student expenditures.

With almost all new jobs going to college graduates, Kentucky had no choice but to better prepare its young people for post-secondary education.

We can’t rest on our laurels though. Stagnant state funding and competition from other states could easily erode Kentucky’s gains. Congratulations to all the educators and young Kentuckians who helped pull our state into the nation’s education mainstream. You’re proving that sustained systemic reform works.

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