Narrowing the state’s scholastic achievement gap, graduating more people from college and developing a healthier population are “The Big Three” that would ensure a better future for Kentucky, according to Michael Childress, executive director of the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center (KLTPRC).

Childress was the featured speaker Monday at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Berea and Madison County.

The KLTPRC’s mission is to facilitate a long-term perspective in decision making, Childress said.

“A few years ago, I took a deep breath and asked myself: What really matters and what will make the biggest difference to Kentucky’s future?,’” Childress said.

More than half of the state’s public school students qualify for free school lunches, Childress said.

National Assessment of Educational Progress) results for 2007 show a sizable gap between the achievement of children who qualify for free lunches and those who do not. Disadvantaged students scored lower in reading, math and science.

If that achievement gap were closed, more students would graduate from high school, go to college and earn higher incomes, Childress said. They also would enjoy better health and lower disability rates.

Increasing high school graduation rates would reduce dependence on welfare, generate increased tax revenues for government and lower crime rates, he said.

Only 17 percent of the state’s population hold at least a four-year college degree. In Madison County, about 22 percent of the some 80,000 residents have a four-year degree.

Kentucky has ranked between 36th and 39th out of the 50 states when it comes to health rankings, Childress said.

“We smoke too much, eat too much and don’t exercise enough,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The state is number one in the nation when it comes to the amount of adult smokers, and number seven in adult obesity, he said.

Bettering the health of Kentuckians would lower health care costs, increase workplace productivity, reduce disability rates and allow the state to be more economically competitive, Childress said.

He suggested two ways of narrowing the state’s achievement gap and producing healthier citizens.

Leadership is a key factor for increasing achievement levels, especially leadership shown by school principals, Childress said.

The answer to better health is simply making better individual health choices, he said.

“As states retrench in this era of uncertain economic times, we need to view this as an opportunity to catch up,” Childress said. “Now more than ever, we need to explore innovative ideas for putting Kentucky on a more prosperous path.”

Visit for more information about the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, or visit for more information about the League of Women Voters of Berea and Madison County.

Ronica Shannon can be reached at or 624-6608.

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