Home » One on One: ‘The Future of Kentucky’s Economy is in Our Classroom Today’

One on One: ‘The Future of Kentucky’s Economy is in Our Classroom Today’

Leaders should prioritize early childhood education and pay equity to move economy forward, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman says

By Lorie Hailey

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, a native of Mercer County, Ky., is an educator, basketball coach, writer and nonprofit founder. She lives in Frankfort with her husband and children.

The daughter of a former state representative, Coleman was taught early on to help those in need. She is an advocate for public education and encourages young women to step into leadership roles.

Coleman was as a high school teacher, basketball coach and school administrator before being elected lieutenant governor in 2019. She led her basketball teams to five consecutive record-breaking seasons and one appearance in the Sweet 16. She earned regional Coach of the Year honors in 2015.

In 2013, Coleman founded the nonprofit Lead Kentucky, which empowers and encourages college women to seek leadership positions on their campuses and later in their professional fields.

As lieutenant governor and Secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, Coleman is focused on creating a comprehensive cradle-to-career public education and job training system that will produce Kentucky’s future leaders. She also concentrates on the many challenges facing rural Kentucky.

Coleman is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Kentucky.

Lorie Hailey: How did you and Gov. Andy Beshear come to team up as running mates for governor and lieutenant governor?

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman: Andy and I have known each other through our political involvement over the years. What really connected us was public education and the pension reform bill issue that we saw a few years ago. He was obviously very involved because he was the one that argued the case [as Kentucky’s attorney general]. I was in the classroom [at that time]. I did the math and realized that [the pension bill] was going to sail through the legislature and the only hope we had was if the attorney general would challenge it. So, I immediately reached out to him and we have had a lot of conversations around this.

What we found was that we have complementary perspectives. He’s a male, I’m a female; he’s from Louisville, I’m from one of the smallest towns and most rural areas in the state; he’s an attorney, I’m a teacher. And so, it was very complementary for us to work towards the same goals, bringing in different perspectives. We both saw value in that and so, ultimately, I think that’s what led us to have a really strong working relationship as governor and lieutenant governor. He kind of caught me by surprise, to be honest, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

LH: Did you have any political aspirations before that?

JC: I always saw myself as someone who was a public education advocate, but I definitely did not think about myself as lieutenant governor. It just kind of goes to show that you never know what’s going to happen next!

I advocated around the big issues that you hear a lot about … what it means to fully fund public education, what it looks like and why it is important. Then, of course, the retirement issue came up in a big way a few years ago, which I’ve viewed as an attack on the profession that we needed to fight for. And then just making sure that our students have somebody there to advocate for them, that they need the best classrooms and the best support system possible because they are the future of this commonwealth. It was always about making sure kids had what they needed and that the profession was strong enough to be able to give that.

LH: Kentucky’s government has some of the youngest leaders we’ve ever had. How do you think that younger perspective—leaders who are actively raising families, for example—affects your leadership and benefits Kentucky residents?

JC: We really do have a young set of statewide elected officials compared to the rest of the nation. It’s one of those things you see at the national level, such a yearning for leadership and new ideas, and it’s very interesting that here in Kentucky, we are clearly leading the way in that regard with some of the youngest statewide elected officials. Some of them have young families like the governor and I do, and that certainly shapes your perspective and the work that you do every day. When you have an older set of leaders, they’ve gone through certain phases of their lives and [their perspective] is just a little bit different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s nice to know that you can have a balance and that both of those perspectives exist in the room where decisions are made.

LH: The pandemic put you and the governor to the test right away. Kentucky has a good reputation for how it has handled the pandemic and the vaccination of its residents. How did that happen?

JC: I credit the governor for his leadership. We’ve led the nation in in the recovery process and in the vaccination process. But as great as his leadership has been, it would not have mattered if we didn’t have the health care community that we have in Kentucky, because they have absolutely knocked it out of park at every turn. He had the vision and they were able to enact it. There are lots of other states that wish that they were in our position right now.

LH: You also serve as Secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. The need for better education-workforce development linkage has been growing more and more obvious for a decade. What challenges do we face in making the changes necessary to improve the ‘human asset’ component of the Kentucky business environment?

JC: It is so critically important to the future success or failure of our economy. Workers are really the heartbeat of our economy. I love this quote by Minouche Shafik: “In the past jobs were about muscles. Now they’re about brains. But in the future, they’ll be about heart.” And I think it’s probably true because it’s really going to be about how we connect with others, how we work with others. It’s not just your intellectual intelligence—now you can Google any fact you want—but your emotional intelligence. That human asset component is so critically important to Kentucky’s economy moving forward. Helping people where we know we have issues and challenges, which for us is the transition points in the education system. That’s why we created the Commonwealth Education Continuum, because only half of Kentucky’s kids have access to preschool, so by the time you get to kindergarten, we have 50% that are behind the eight ball right off the bat.

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman met with local government and health officials at Owensboro Health Regional Hospital.

LH: Can you describe the Commonwealth Education Continuum’s planned goals and the timeline involved?

JC: As a teacher, I was constantly asked to close the gaps in my classroom. When students would come to me with a reading deficiency, I knew I needed to get them from [where they were to where they needed to be] by the time the school year was over. But no one could tell me how our entire education system was working to close the gaps for these kids outside of my classroom. You don’t want all of that work to just be for naught. So, when we developed this continuum, we did it with that in mind: Where are we losing our students? Where are the challenges? Where are the potholes in the road? Let’s work to wrap our arms around them [students] and get them across the finish line. And then postsecondary can look like anything they want it to. They have options rather than a default. We never want our kids to default to something; we want them to have options and opportunity.

In the continuum, we have three focused points for this year: The first is early postsecondary opportunities. We have one group that is looking at how we can increase those opportunities for college before they ever get there, because that’s going to increase the likelihood that they would continue on to some level of higher education. We have transitions to postsecondary, so that involves bridging that gap where we work and work and work and we hustle to get our kids across that stage of graduation. And then what? We have to own that. All of us have to come together in a community and own that.

The third area we’re focusing on is the educator workforce and diversity. One of the things that I value is making sure that our students experience leadership that looks like them. That will change their life. So often our teachers are the first leaders outside of the home that our kids experience. Every kid should be able to look at one of those first leaders outside of their home and think, “Well, I can do that. I could be that.” It changes the trajectory of a kid’s life. So we’re focusing on diversifying the workforce, really investing in our teachers, and not just recruiting them but working to retain them to make sure that they stay in the profession and that they continue to do what they love. That will only benefit our kids.

LH: Not every student is meant to go to college. Does the continuum address other postsecondary options?

JC: The governor and I have always said that we’re not here to pick a side in the college versus the workforce argument. We need more of everything. We need more apprenticeships, more postsecondary credentials, more associate degrees, more four-year college degrees. We need it all. And it is not our job as elected officials to tell these students what they should do. Our job is to create every opportunity we can for them and help them to find their calling and that looks different for different students. That’s been one of our focus points through not just the campaign but through our administration: How can we create opportunities for our kids? So, we’ve reinstated the apprenticeship council in Kentucky.

The governor included in his budget the Better Kentucky Promise, which aimed to provide the last dollars to allow Kentuckians to finish an associate degree at any Kentucky college or university and not incur debt as a result. It was going to be transformational. Unfortunately, the legislature took that out of the budget, but that shows our commitment. Whether it’s an apprenticeship, an associate degree or a four-year college degree, we absolutely have to work together to make sure that every opportunity is available for every Kentucky kid.

LH: Colleges and universities are offering more certificate programs, microcredentials, specialized graduate programs and more. In what other ways does postsecondary education need to evolve to meet the goals of making the education system stronger?

JC: Postsecondary life looks different for different people. The bottom line is we need folks to pursue a specialization, an education and a certificate, an apprenticeship to create even more economic opportunities for their families. Once someone pursues some sort of postsecondary credential, that changes the trajectory of that family.

Our challenge is now that these credentials exist and we have all of these different modes of certification or attaining a degree, we need to work to make those stackable and transferable. Then that will incentivize folks to say, ‘Well, I got the certificate and so now my hourly wage is much higher than what it would have been if I just had a high school diploma, but now if I take two more classes, it changes my status to be able to elevate myself in my profession or change professions.’ So, making those things stackable and transferable across different job training and education programs would really go a long way in helping Kentucky families.

LH: Do you think Kentucky needs more public school career academies, where students participate in career tracks and work with the business community?

JC: Yes, and there’s really been a movement lately where you see a lot more of what we call school-family-community partnerships. It’s really kind of harkening back to that notion that a school is a community school and the results that come from the education that happens there affects every family and every small business—everything in that community. So we’re really working to create those partnerships. Nobody can do it alone and nobody should have to.

We all need to work together because we all have the same end goal in mind: the best economy we can create in Kentucky, and that begins with education. We can’t talk about creating new jobs or bringing in new businesses or any of that until we’re really willing to have the tough conversations about how to build the best education system that Kentucky has ever had and then the rest of it takes care of itself.

LH: Did any issues come up this past year as we implemented virtual school and dealt with the challenges of the pandemic that shed light on other areas that need more attention?

JC: I would say the pandemic certainly created its own set of challenges, but it also magnified old ones. The one that I’ve really focused on and tried to do a lot of work around is the issue of connectivity. So often the challenge that we face is our schools are able to utilize funding to buy devices like Chromebooks and laptops and things like that, but that doesn’t do any good if you go home and you don’t have any access to the internet or you have slow access to the internet.

When we realized we were going to have to close school buildings, the first thing that came to mind was that when I was a teacher, I had students that would come in before school so that they could grab a Chromebook to get some work done because they couldn’t do it at home. It happens all the time across every classroom in Kentucky. So I knew we were going to have an even wider equity issue because of the digital divide. We utilized about $8 million worth of CARES Act funding to deploy mobile hotspots, which was a kind of short-term, quick fix to try to put hotspots into the hands of families that had K-12 students who were learning from home [but had no internet access].

But long term, our economy, our workforce, our businesses and our education systems are absolutely going to be dependent upon our connectivity. You can’t create the jobs of the future if you don’t have internet access, so that’s really been a focus for us. In the past few months, I have worked on spearheading the Kentucky Broadband Initiative. We did our state [speed test] mapping and the national partners that we had said Kentucky did in six weeks what states that are much larger haven’t done in six months. We were really able to get ahead of this because now that the world has changed, this is where every state is trying to go. They [the partners] said we were a model for the other states that they’re working with.

I think that speaks a lot to not just the Beshear administration, but also our partnerships with local government and businesses and schools to really try to elevate this map testing to give us the data to know where to start, what areas are underserved and what areas are unserved. The pandemic created the sense of urgency we needed to really go after this.

LH: During the height of the pandemic when school buildings were closed, many parents had to stay home to take care of their children and facilitate virtual school. Women were particularly affected. Research shows that women accounted for 56% of workplace exits since the start of the pandemic, despite making up just 48% of the workforce. Do you have any data about the number of women who were sent out of the active workforce during the pandemic?

JC: What we know is that millions of women have left the workforce, or at the very least, they had to downshift their careers. I think over 2 million women have left the workforce, and the estimated economic impact is somewhere like $650 billion. We’re going to feel that reverberation for quite a while. That’s not going to be something that we heal overnight.

The obstacles that women in Kentucky have experienced in the past year are the same obstacles that our leaders and our society have failed to address for generations. Everything that women have experienced during the pandemic was not new, it was just magnified. So, in addition to the fact that women experience pay inequity, we have what we call ‘child care deserts’ in Kentucky; not everybody has equitable access to child care. There’s also a lack of women—and especially women of color—in management and leadership positions. It’s been that way. This is not something that’s new to us.

These long-standing societal issues basically collided head-on with a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide health pandemic, and it created the perfect storm that did two things. It put even more professional pressure on women, because if you look at health care, it’s dominated by women; education is dominated by women; the service industry is dominated by women. So there’s professional pressure, and now that you have child care issues, personal pressure is added. Those challenges are things that we’ve needed to face and address for a long time. What I hope is that this gives us the sense of urgency to take on these issues because we know the challenges—they’re looking at us right in the eye. A commitment to building an early childhood education system in Kentucky is not just an education issue, it’s a workforce issue.

Making sure that we don’t have child care deserts across Kentucky will only make family earning potential stronger, to make sure that we have pay equity. Gov. Beshear has committed to funding a state and local government audit on pay equity to make sure that we are leading the way and doing this the right way.
Those challenges are nothing new, but I’m hopeful that this gives us a great point to start from when we talk about what this new economy is going to look like and how it’s going to operate to make sure that it works for everybody.

The pandemic very much amplified problems that we already had. I’ll just be really blunt about it. We see these challenges; we know they exist. And if after going through this, we fail to prioritize these two critical areas of our economy, pay equity and early childhood education/child care, then we have knowingly created barriers to the workforce for many women—for probably half of the women in Kentucky. What that means is that we will have an economy that perpetually falls short of its potential. It’s that simple.

LH: How does Kentucky’s teacher compensation compare with our peer states? Why is there a national teacher shortage?

JC: A lot of the shortage has to do with the fact that teachers are not paid enough. I don’t know that we could ever really pay teachers what they’re worth but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Look at what a similarly educated professional makes and realize that teachers make 20% less than that, on average. I believe teaching is a calling, but so often that calling is exploited by people who say, ‘Oh they didn’t go into teaching to get rich. They didn’t go into teaching to make money.’ We didn’t, but again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to compensate people for the difference they make in our communities every day.

The governor and I believe that in order to build a better educator workforce, we have to make it enticing. We have to give people a reason to enter the profession. In the last two budgets, the governor put across-the-board raises for teachers in the budget, but both times the General Assembly took it out. So, it makes it more difficult to build a stronger workforce and retain that workforce to make sure that they’re always there for our kids.

LH: Why is there a perception that teachers don’t need or deserve better pay?

JC: I think it’s because it’s a profession that is dominated by women. Seventy-five percent of teachers are female but 75% of superintendents are men, which is interesting. I think there is a perception that it’s a field that you go into because of your heart and because it’s a calling and many of those folks happen to be female. So I think that is the reason there has been such a hesitation to increase teacher pay.

LH: So, we have to start valuing women and then we will place a higher value on teachers?

JC: There you go.

LH: How do you encourage the state legislature to invest in education?

JC: We’ve got to put down that political armor, we’ve got to put down the team colors and realize that we may have different opinions, but the bottom line is we all want the same thing: We all want a better economy, we all want to take care of our kids. We’ve got to be willing to come to the table. We have to continue to try to work together. We’re committed to doing that. We have to convince folks to … look a little deeper and think a little more critically about the decisions we make, especially when it affects our kids. And we have to keep talking about how it’s important to our economy. It is not just about doing better for the kids, but doing better for the entire community.

I do think it’s about how you talk about these issues. If I just talk about early childhood education, that doesn’t mean a lot to a lot of people. Yes, we want 4-year-olds to go to school and learn colors. But do you know how they forecast prison populations? Third grade literacy rates. So we can’t wait until third grade to start implementing literacy programs. You have to start when they’re 5 and build on it so that by the time they get to third grade, they’re not a statistic. Again, that’s an economic argument, not just an educational one. They go hand in hand.

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and her family live in Frankfort, Ky.

LH: You founded a nonprofit called Lead Kentucky. What is it and how did it come about?

JC: Lead Kentucky brings together the best and the brightest college women in Kentucky and empowers them to become our next generation of leaders. Only 28% of our legislators are women. I felt like we needed to get to the heart of this issue, so I just did my research and contacted experts around the country and asked them ‘Where’s the divide? What’s happening here?’ High school girls are more likely than boys to be leaders. They’re class presidents, yearbook editors and on and on. What they figured out is that the gender leadership gap is happening on our college campuses, which blew my mind until I looked in the mirror and realized I was part of the problem. I was the yearbook editor, I was the class president and then I went to college and all I did was play basketball, which takes up a lot of time, but I absolutely could have done more and I didn’t.

I decided if I was part of the problem, I was going to be part of the solution. So, I founded Lead Kentucky in 2013, which hosts an annual leadership summit where we bring together college women from across Kentucky for a two-day leadership seminar to connect them with the women who are leading Kentucky in every field. It has created mentorships and opportunities for internships. Honestly, I think the greatest lesson that our college women take away from Lead Kentucky is that success is not a straight line. You see successful women and think everything has worked out for them, but you don’t see the struggle or the ways that their path has zigzagged throughout their career. When these college women hear that, it’s almost like they can exhale because they don’t feel that pressure anymore. That connection and understanding goes a long way in helping foster a new generation of leadership.

I do want more women to run for office, but you don’t have to run for office to be a leader. Our tagline is: ‘Find your passion, get involved, take the lead.’ Whatever it is that you love, go for it, get involved in organizations, and then once you’re involved, don’t be afraid to step up and take the lead.

LH: You’ve been a teacher, a coach, an education administrator, elected official, a mom, a wife. How have all these different roles given you unique insight into the role of government in education and workforce skills development?

JC: I am in a way very uniquely positioned in this role because of all the things you just named. In each of those roles, I’m able to see a different piece of the puzzle. But at the end of the day, what I know to be true, no matter my role, is that if we want to build a better economy in Kentucky, we have to be willing to invest in every facet of our education system and the people in it. That’s monetarily but also investing in the support and wraparound services that our kids and families need.

I always say the future of Kentucky’s economy is in our classroom today. Now let’s talk about budget and let’s talk about investments. When you think about it that way, it changes the conversation. In every role I’ve played, that’s the one thing I continue to come back to.

LH: How does organized athletics contribute to workforce development?

JC: When you are part of a team, you learn things like discipline and accountability and resilience. We’re not always going to succeed, so you have to learn how to fail and how to keep going. All of those things are really important, but I would say one of the most important things is teamwork. When we’re working with people who don’t necessarily agree with us, we have to be able to disagree amicably and walk away so that we can come back for the next issue that comes up.

It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Kentucky has been so successful coming out of this pandemic because from the beginning, Gov. Beshear established Team Kentucky and ‘we’re all in this together.’ And that’s really stuck with people. Being a good team player is knowing when you need to take the lead and knowing when you need to sacrifice, then knowing that your actions have an impact on others. There’s no better lesson to learn, and I think that’s why ultimately the best teammates make the best employees and employers. ■

Lorie Hailey is special publications editor for The Lane Report. Reach her at [email protected]