Chalk Talks - Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Kentucky Education Reform Act A Generation Later

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

In 1990, shortly after the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the state's educational system profoundly flawed in virtually every respect,' legislators approved sweeping reforms aimed at reducing the funding disparity between the state's richest and poorest school districts. The goal was to create an improved system promoting the core philosophy that all children are capable of learning, and most at high levels.2 The Kentucky Education Reform Act [KERA],3 increased the state sales tax to six percent and approved an additional $1 billion to fund new programs, including parent-teacher decision-making councils, preschool programs for disadvantaged children, family resource and youth services centers in districts with high poverty rates, and, perhaps most significantly, a plan to hold schools directly accountable for student performance.4 The law further restructured the Kentucky Department of Education, introduced statewide anti-nepotism rules and required that property be taxed at full market value.5

KERA supporters cautioned that the success or failure of the experiment would not be known until a generation of Kentucky schoolchildren had been educated under the new system.6 Only then, they asserted, could KERA framers measure the readiness of students in affluent districts clustered in the central and western parts of the state against that of students in property-poor districts.7

More than two decades later, the promise of KERA has been fulfilled in some respects and left wanting in others. On one hand, Kentucky has improved its historically low ranking in nationwide educational assessments. On the other, promised funding levels have failed to keep pace with student needs and, in some cases, have been misdirected into programs unrelated to academics.

Undoubtedly, the ambitious reform package shows signs of erosion due to years of political opposition and funding cutbacks. Nevertheless, the intervening decades demonstrate that, despite a continued need to adjust the sails and change course, education reform has produced a generation of Kentucky students that are better prepared than their predecessors to succeed in a global economy/

II. THE ROOTS OF REFORM

Kentucky's landmark education case, Rose v. Council for Better Education,9 wound its way to the state Supreme Court in 1989 in a political climate receptive to change. The council, a coalition of 66 school districts and the parents of 22 schoolchildren, had brought suit challenging Kentucky's school-funding system on the ground that it violated the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause,10 as well as a state constitutional provision that charged Kentucky lawmakers with providing for an efficient system of common schools" throughout the state.12

At the time, ninety percent of potential employers looking to relocate rejected Kentucky on the basis of its poorly educated workforce.13 The state was near the top of the nation in terms of unemployment and number of children living in poverty, but near the bottom in terms of per-capita income.14 Only two-thirds of Kentucky students who entered the ninthgrade graduated in four years, and only fifty -eight percent of ninth-grade students in the Jefferson County, the largest school system in the state, graduated high school.15 Businesses looked at Kentucky's weak educational system and saw a pool of high-school dropouts and graduates ill prepared for the workforce. Large employers found it difficult to attract and keep workers who wanted their children to attend good schools.16

The Franklin Circuit Court agreed with the Rose plaintiffs that the funding system then in place was unconstitutional. On appeal, the Kentucky Supreme Court went even further:

Lest there be any doubt, the result of our decision is that Kentucky's entire system of common schools is unconstitutional. . . . This decision applies to the entire sweep of the system - all its parts and parcels. This decision applies to the statutes creating, implementing and financing the system and to all regulations, etc. …