September 23, 2013

A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand

FRANKFORT – In the late 1990s, when the General Assembly overhauled Kentucky’s public colleges and universities, one of the reform’s central planks was to improve the level of research.

To spur that along, the state created “Bucks for Brains” and called on the schools to match that money with private donations, an initiative that has since raised more than $800 million.

Earlier this month, the General Assembly’s Budget Review Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education got a clearer picture of what this money has helped accomplish, thanks to presentations from the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) and officials from the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville.

One telling measure they pointed out is the dramatic increase in endowed positions, which are supported by a dedicated funding source. According to CPE, there are now five times as many of these as there were in 1998, and these professors cover subjects ranging from chemical and electrical engineering to pediatrics, veterinary science and forestry.

UK and U of L alone now set aside more than $500 million annually for research and development, and the work they – and our other four-year schools – do is both far-reaching and diverse. It’s also garnering national and international acclaim.

Earlier this summer, for example, UK became home to the state’s first National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, a prestigious honor that will increase Kentucky’s contributions when it comes to improving treatment and even finding a cure.

U of L’s cancer center plays a prominent role as well, with its researchers having a hand in developing the world’s first 100 percent-effective cancer vaccine, which in this case primarily targets cervical cancer.

There are other areas where these schools excel. Both schools are working on Alzheimer’s disease research, and they are also involved in finding ways to help patients with spinal cord injuries.

Both schools are also major players when it comes to energy. A new center studying the next generation of batteries for electric vehicles is not far from UK’s campus, while U of L has established a center as well to look into renewable energy sources with the help of a $20 million private donation that is the largest any public university in Kentucky has ever received.

At our other universities, meanwhile, we’re seeing similar gains. Murray State University’s Breathitt Veterinary Center plays an integral role in when it comes to diagnosing and treating animal diseases, and the school is also a leader in environmental education.

In a similar vein, Kentucky State University has a worldwide reputation in aquaculture, a field of agriculture that has enabled farmers here and elsewhere to grow such food as shrimp and paddle fish.

Eastern Kentucky University is on the frontlines in homeland security matters, while Western Kentucky University is taking a lead in such areas as gifted and talented education, journalism and even the development of such things as flexible, low-cost solar panels.

The youngest of our public four-year institutions, Northern Kentucky University, is a magnet for entrepreneurs and those looking for careers rooted in today’s Information Age. It also offers the nation’s first undergraduate program in the business of sports.

Morehead State University gives our students the ability to reach for the stars, so to speak, with degrees in space exploration. Later this fall, students from there and UK are set to launch the second satellite designed, built and tested in the commonwealth.

While the first attempt unfortunately failed as part of a March 2011 mission overseen by NASA, there is hope that KySat-2 will make orbit when it launches from Virginia in an unmanned rocket a little more than a month from now. Although relatively small due to size restrictions, it will include an onboard computer, a camera, solar panels and a transmitter.

These examples are just a few that showcase what is taking place on our college campuses. What makes this even better is the fact that more students are now better prepared to take advantage of this diversity.

The latest proof came last week, when Gov. Beshear and the Dept. of Education announced that 54 percent of graduating high school students are college and career ready, a 20-point increase in just three years. Our high school graduation rate, which is 10 points higher than it was in 2008, is on a similar track and is among the nation’s leaders.

When it comes to education, there is always room for improvement, but these gains show that, as we hoped 16 years ago, we are heading in the right direction. Our task now is to build on that.

If you have any questions or concerns about this issue or any other affecting the state, you can reach me by writing to Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Paid for by Rick Rand for State Representative, Regina Rand, Treasurer