Kentucky’s Education Reform Act (KERA) substantially changed the Bluegrass State’s school finance formula and largely eliminated nepotism from the state’s rural and Appalachian school districts, but it has done little to bolster academic achievement, a new report from a state policy group finds.
“We don’t say in this report that there has been absolutely no progress. There has been some, but not nearly enough to justify the huge amounts of spending and tax dollars that have been spent to get there,” said Richard G. Innes, an education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute and author of the study of Kentucky’s 20-year-old reform law.
“Even with the small gains, after two entire decades of KERA, only one in three Kentucky fourth graders are proficient readers and mathematicians, and only one in four eighth graders proficient in math and writing,” Innes said.
Despite persistent low graduation and high college-remediation rates, state education officials have tended to hail KERA as a success. But lawmakers say they’re concerned about the lack of demonstrable benefits in student achievement.
“I wouldn’t say everything in [KERA] is bad, but it certainly needs to be reopened, re-studied and reassessed and a new course of action followed,” said Rep. C.B. Embry (R-Morgantown). “Maybe we have learned something during the past 20 years that we could do differently.”
KERA was the result of a lawsuit filed in 1989 by 66 superintendents from high-poverty districts, which led to a state Supreme Court decision mandating reforms. The state’s highest court ruled the state’s entire school-funding system was unconstitutional.
The Bluegrass Institute report notes the charter school movement began in earnest around the same time Kentucky adopted KERA. Yet 20 years on, Kentucky remains one of 10 states without a charter school law.
“Both KERA and charter schools came along at approximately the same time, and both were billed as major reforms in education,” said Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville), who has introduced charter school legislation three years in a row. “Looking back, most of the major innovations in education reform in the last 20 years have come out of charter schools, while KERA hasn’t really produced any real notable, long-lasting reforms.”
New Reforms Considered
After implementing two new statewide testing systems and multiple changes to the curriculum and school governance—including “new math,” whole-language reading instruction, “performance events,” and School-Based Decision-Making Councils (SBDMs)—Kentucky’s legislators are considering a new round of reforms.
Senate Bill 1, passed in 2009, eliminated the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, a $10 million program that lawmakers found had failed to account for large groups of minority children, including special-needs students. The law called for a new standards and assessment policy.
“It concerns me that as we enter into this that when we should see a real shift in direction and emphasis with Senate Bill 1, we still seem to be considering the things that didn’t work,” said Montell.
In February, the Kentucky state board of education voted to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of national standards in reading and math developed by the National Governors Association and touted by the U.S. Department of Education. There are currently no tests tied to the Common Core, however.
Bureaucracy ‘A Big Shock’
Embry, a House Education Committee member, is critical of trendy testing practices such as open-response writing questions that require large chunks of time for students and graders.
“It’s important that kids write well, but with the writing portfolios, they wrote them, then the teacher would assess, then they would rewrite them and rewrite them again, and it went on for weeks and weeks,” Embry said. “I think they ran that stuff into the ground. It took too much time away from students absorbing the information they need.”
Experienced educators point to a burgeoning bureaucracy and increasing centralization of the decision-making process as contributing to KERA’s downfall.
“One of the big shocks of KERA was the amount of bureaucracy coming down on everyone involved, especially teachers,” said Richard Ratliff, a retired Kentucky educator who spent 28 years in the system, including 14 years as a district superintendent. “Teachers wanted to teach, yet most found themselves bogged down by a bureaucratic decision-making process.”
In particular, KERA’s school-management policy—the SBDMs—shattered the traditional system of superintendents and principals working together, Ratliff says. The councils, made up of three teachers for every two parents, made decisions on nearly every aspect of school management and had the final say on who would be principal.
Ratliff said SBDMs interfered with the superintendent’s flexibility and accountability to the school board.
“You need the power to make decisions as they affect all schools in your system,” he said. “And you need to be able to coordinate and move personnel as needed.”
The Bluegrass report shows SBDMs rarely lose power, even in failing schools.
“Experienced, effective teachers were commenting on these issues and warning us 20 years ago,” Ratliff said. “Those who would speak out against KERA were discouraged and sometimes even intimidated by Frankfort from doing so. But I think this report might bring those willing to speak up out in the open again.”
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
“Is 20-year-old KERA cause for celebration or concern? Failure of many of the reform’s efforts offers warnings as commonwealth and nation prepare new academic standards”: http://www.bipps.org/files/29/NR.%20KERA%20releases.pdf