Assessing Kentucky’s Public Education System 30 Years After KERA

By John Gregory | 6/18/19 8:00 AM

Thirty years ago this month, newspaper headlines across the country reported the news of a remarkable court decision coming out of the commonwealth:

“Kentucky Public Schools Ruled Unconstitutional,” said the Washington Post.

“Kentucky Schools Face Shake-Up as Court Calls Rich-Poor Split Unconstitutional,” said the Atlanta Constitution.

“State Court Tells Kentucky To Revamp Its School System,” said the San Francisco Chronicle.

To mark the anniversary of the Rose v. Council for Better Education decision, KET’s Kentucky Tonight convened a discussion about how pubic education in the commonwealth has changed since the landmark case. The guests were Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis; Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence; Eric Kennedy, governmental relations director for the Kentucky School Boards Association; and Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions. The panel also explored several issues facing the state’s educators.

 

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The History of the Rose Decision
The path to education reform in Kentucky began in 1984 when representatives from 28 school districts joined to create the Council for Better Education. They felt their schools weren’t being adequately funded, especially those in poorer districts, and that was leading to disastrous education outcomes for the state. In the 1980s, Kentucky ranked 50th in the nation in the percentage of adults with a high school diploma and 42nd in per-pupil expenditures.

At the heart of the issue was that districts with lower property tax revenues lagged behind wealthier districts. Without proper funding, schools had difficulty retaining quality teachers and other staff as well as offering advanced placement and other specialty classes.

“We had some real economic disparities in our school districts,” says Eastern Kentucky University Associate Professor Richard Day, who has studied education reform in the state. “These inequities were well known to the state superintendents for years and years, but they didn’t really feel like they couldn’t do anything about it.”

The leaders of the Council for Better Education decided to file a lawsuit to challenge the state system of school funding. In doing so they made two critical decisions: They based their case on Section 183 of the Kentucky Constitution, which says “The General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the State.” And they hired former Governor and former federal judge Bert Combs to represent them.

“We were just a bunch of rabble-rousers until Judge Combs decided he would be our lead attorney, and then we had instant credibility,” says Jack Moreland, who was president of the council and superintendent of the Dayton Independent Schools in northern Kentucky during the legal action.

The original case took nearly three years to work its way through Franklin Circuit Court before Judge Ray Corns declared the state’s public school funding system was unconstitutional. The state legislature appealed the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court, where it became known as Rose v. Council for Better Education. (The president of the Kentucky Senate at that time was John “Eck” Rose, a Democrat from Winchester.)

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December 1988 and then the justices announced their ruling on June 8, 1989. The decision, written by Chief Justice Robert Stephens, went far beyond the school funding issue.

“Lest there be any doubt,” Stevens wrote, “the result of our decision is that Kentucky’s entire system of common schools is unconstitutional… the entire sweep of the system – all its parts and parcels.”

“That really was a shocking kind of a result,” says Day. “Every public school law was invalidated.”

The ruling directed the state legislature to create a new system of common schools that would provide “equal educational opportunities to all Kentucky children, regardless of place of residence or economic circumstances.” Lawmakers also had to find sufficient funding to make that happen.

“The day the ruling came down, I got a phone call from Judge Combs, and he said, ’We went for thimble full and we got a tub full,’” recalls Moreland. “It was a great day for us.”

In the wake of the Rose decision, the 1990 General Assembly passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which brought sweeping changes to how schools would be financed and governed, and what children would be taught and how they would be tested. The ruling also sent shockwaves throughout nation, and has since been cited in more than 400 other court cases involving school equity and funding.

Kentucky Education 30 Years Later
With the boost in funding and the refocus on academics that followed, Kentucky went from the bottom in many education rankings to the middle of the pack. The Prichard Committee’s Brigitte Blom Ramsey says that is something to celebrate.

“Kentucky made an unprecedented statement nationally on the grounds of equity and what the promise of public education means for all students, and sought to right that ship,” she says.

The new funding formula, called Support Education Excellence in Kentucky or SEEK, dramatically boosted per-pupil spending across all the state’s school districts. In the last state budget, lawmakers allocated a record high amount for SEEK funding. But education advocates say even with that modest increase, per-pupil spending has not kept pace with inflation.

Ramsey says there’s another spending trend that’s developed during the recession years of the past decade: More of the funding burden has shifted from the state on to local districts. Ramsey says that trend goes against directives in the Rose decision, and has resulted in wealthier jurisdictions having more money for their schools than poorer districts.

According to an opinion piece by the Kentucky School Boards Association, local dollars now comprise almost half of SEEK funding. The article cites the example of an urban independent district that allocates almost $22,000 per student while one rural district spends a little more than $13,000.

“When you look at the 30-year period that we have in the history of Rose, the first half, we were making such great strides,” says Eric Kennedy of KSBA. “In the second half, we have moved farther away from that and lost ground.”

At the same time, student achievement has fallen below expectations in some areas, especially along racial lines. Richard Innes of the Bluegrass Institute says 37 percent of white students in eighth grade were proficient in reading as of the 2017 scores, but only 16 percent of black students were proficient. Math scores for eighth graders showed an even wider disparity: 32 percent proficiency for white children versus 9 percent for African Americans.

“And the gap for eighth grade math between whites and blacks for proficiency has grown about 2.5 times from what it was back in 1990 when that test was first given,” says Innes. “So we see some very significant problems.”

Even with the landmark reforms of KERA, current state Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis admit inequities still exist in funding and in student performance. He says neither educators nor taxpayers should be satisfied with the rate of progress the state has made on these issues.

“Strategic investment in public education is going to be necessary in order for us to get where we need to be,” says Lewis. “But along with that we need to very aggressively explore greater efficiencies, we need to very aggressively explore changes in structures, changes in policies that help us to get to a more equitable outcome.”

Teacher Recruitment and Compensation
Lewis says the state also faces a teacher shortage, especially among those who teach high school math and science classes, as well as those working in special education and career and technical education. The few educators with those specialties that the state does produce are often lured to other states that can pay them better, says Lewis.

Current state statute requires districts to pay teachers according to a uniform schedule based on two factors: the number of years of classroom experience they have and the rank they have achieved based on their own level of professional training.

Lewis says he wants to change this top-down approach to mandating teacher pay.

“I don’t believe the solution to teacher pay lies at the state level,” says the commissioner. “What I’m proposing is greater flexibility at the state level to permit districts to do some experimentation… Districts in collaboration with their teachers should explore different ways of being able to incentivize incredible performance in the classroom.”

Such differentiated pay scales, Lewis says, could be used to encourage teachers to take jobs in low-performing schools or in high-poverty communities. Legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2018 does allow districts to pay more to teachers who work in certain higher-needs schools. For example, Jefferson County pays a $1,000 signing bonus plus an extra $400 per school quarter to teachers to transfer to a needy school.

Higher pay could also lure educators-in-training to specialize in critical subject areas where there’s an existing teacher shortage – for example, the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

“We know that we are lacking in math outcomes in our state from early childhood through postsecondary,” says Ramsey. “So there is a role for a strategic incentivizing of math certification in some way that ensures quality teaching and learning in the key areas where we need it.”

Innes says incentives could also be used to get people in other professions to consider teaching as a second career in addition to pushing current educators to return to school themselves to sharpen their skills.

“Our existing teaching core needs more improvement… but it’s difficult for them to afford to do that,” says Innes. “Now if we can help provide them stipend supports to get that extra education, we might be able to get some of our teachers to improve.”

But with the state already struggling to maintain public education funding, where can schools find the money to pay higher salaries? Innes says one option would be to reduce the number of teacher’s aides and put the resulting savings towards higher pay for teachers. He says research indicates that aides provide no extra education value for students.

Kennedy says any decision to cut teacher’s aides needs to made at the local level. He says some districts may not need as many aides, whereas other schools may need all they classroom assistance they can get. He also says all districts need to place the best teachers where the needs are the greatest. But he says incentive strategies must be used cautiously.

“We always have to be careful when we talk about differentiated pay that we don’t do something that takes us back to the way things were before when there were certain things that might have been improper or wasteful with favoritism and nepotism… in some districts,” says Kennedy.

Revised Academic Standards
A draft set of new social studies standards is making its way through the approval process. Lewis says the proposed changes have been endorsed by the Kentucky Board of Education and been reviewed by an administrative regulations committee of the legislature. The Interim Joint Committee on Education is set to consider the standards at its July meeting.

Under a 2017 state law, education officials will review standards for key academic subjects every six years. Ramsey says the standards are guidelines for what students need to know, not actual curricula. She says it’s up to individual teachers to devise lesson plans that enable students to meet those standards.

The new social studies standards have garnered broad support, according to Lewis. But Innes says he has significant concerns that events after World War II are missing from the new standards. He contends that means Kentucky students won’t learn about the Korean, Vietnam, or Persian Gulf Wars, nor will they know about the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis says students will learn about those topics. He says educators and stakeholders from around the state have done “a fantastic job” to draft the new standards, which Lewis describes as “high quality.”

The 2020 General Assembly
The panelists say their respective organizations are already considering their priorities for the next session of the legislature. Lewis says his agenda will include funding to increase literacy and numeracy among Kentucky’s youngest kids.

Ramsey says the Prichard Committee will also focus on the state’s youngest students with an emphasis on early brain development and third grade reading and math proficiency. She says her organization also wants adequate and equitable funding for all levels of education, from kindergarten through postsecondary.

Kennedy says the KSBA will also be focused on education funding, including higher pay for teachers as well as incentive pay and money for professional development.

And the Bluegrass Institute will make funding for charter schools a top priority, according to Innes.