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Ky. Considers Plan To Take Over 'Academically Bankrupt' Systems

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Kentucky lawmakers, turning to a form of power now used by states only when school districts get into deep financial trouble, are seeking the authority to take over districts deemed to be "academically bankrupt."

The Senate last week voted 35 to 2 to approve a bill that allows the State Board of Education to place a school district under state receivership if the board finds that the district is bankrupt in terms of its students' academic performance.

Only a few states--most notably New Jersey--have tried to create such a direct statutory link between academic standards and state control; most states have more broadly worded statutes allowing state takeovers in extreme financial situations or other unusual circumstances.

But the growing pressure on state leaders to improve the performance of their public schools is generating moves like that in Kentucky to expand state authority over instructional matters, with student achievement a key yardstick.

Educators and legislators are "reacting to reports and criticism of public education" by beginning to "beef up standards" through competency testing and other practices that measure educational outcomes, said Martha L. McCarthy, associate dean of faculties and professor of education at Indiana University and an expert on state regulations governing school districts.

Leaders Favor Measure

Kentucky's academic-bankruptcy bill has the full endorsement of Gov. Martha Layne Collins and Superintendent of Public Instruction Alice McDonald, and it "has a good shot at passing the House," according to its sponsor, Senator Nelson Robert Allen.

The bill is "part of the Governor's overall education package," according to Hank Lindsey, Ms. Collins's press secretary.

"It says that if local districts cannot provide the necessary education, somebody will," he added.

Mr. Lindsey said that the House would vote on the bill this week or next and agreed with Senator Allen that its chances for passage are "pretty good."

The purpose of the bill is to increase accountability and promote improvement of the schools, Senator Allen said. "Funding has increased for education, but some districts still are not performing well," he added.

Existing statutes require that local boards devise a plan to improve their schools' performance, but the academic-bankruptcy bill goes much further, according to Sandra L. Deaton, legislative analyst for the Kentucky Senate.

It would require the state board to set minimum standards that districts must meet. The standards could be based on standardized-test scores, dropout and attendance rates, and accreditation reports, Ms. Deaton said.

She said that if an accreditation team finds deficiencies or if citizens' complaints are found to be justified, the academic-bankruptcy bill would empower the state board to send in consultants to develop with district officials an educational-improvement plan to solve the problems within a certain time frame.

"If for some reason the district does not implement the improvement plan, the state board would then have the right to limit the district's authority in several areas," including expenditures, program and policy decisions, personnel management, and the school calendar, she said.

The state would be allowed to reallocate up to 25 percent of the district's state funds to address the improvement needs. Ultimately, it could also remove the district superintendent and school-board members, according to Senator Allen.

'Beefed-Up' Accreditation

The Kentucky legislation, according to Ms. McCarthy of Indiana University, is a "beefed-up accreditation standard" with a "new twist."

She said all states have a some legal basis for disbanding a school district. Often, she said, the laws provide for dissolution or merger for fiscal, rather than educational, reasons. But what is "unique" about the Kentucky plan, Ms. McCarthy added, is that "rather than abolish or annex the district, the state says it will come in and run the program and tell you how to use your funds."

"The vast majority of states define educational adequacy in terms of state approval or accreditation," Ms. McCarthy said. "They usually focus on input standards, such as the number of library books and the pupil-teacher ratio. Now we are seeing increased attention on output standards--how well students perform on tests."

Extended Authority

Officials in other states said that although the term "academic receivership" is new to them, their legislatures and state boards of education are enacting or considering measures to extend state authority on issues of academic quality, including requirements for retention, attendance, and test scores.

New Jersey has had an elaborate monitoring system since 1975 that assesses the performance of school districts and intervenes if state standards are not met. The monitoring system was streamlined this year to reduce paperwork, according to Dorothea D. Owen, public information office for the New Jersey Department of Education. "If districts pass the first level of monitoring, they won't be monitored agained for five years," Ms. Owen said.

The Arkansas legislature approved a law last November that requires districts to be accountable for student performance. If fewer than 85 percent of students in a particular district pass promotion tests, the district must submit an improvement plan to the state. If after two years the district shows no "reasonable progress" in raising student-achievement levels, it could face dissolution by the state, according to education officials there.

Stronger New York Proposal

In New York, the state's registration process sets standards for required minimum student performance on competency tests as well as for student retention, according to Joseph P. Frey, executive assistant to the deputy commissioner in the New York State Education Department.

Under a voluntary "resource-allocation program," the state sends a group of about 25 consultants to work with district officials, teachers, and administrators in districts where student performance is poor on the state-mandated examinations.

But the state is considering extending its authority. This month, the state board of regents will consider a proposed rule requiring each district and nonpublic school to submit a comprehensive assessment report on student performance to the education department, Mr. Frey said. The state would use the results to identify the bottom 10 to 15 percent of districts and target them for special assistance.

"Districts so designated would be required to submit an improvement plan; they might also be required to use state syllabi, follow state-approved approaches for remedial work, develop comprehensive planning, and require time on task for certain subjects," Mr. Frey said.

The reports would also indicate whether student performance is disproportionately low for any particular group, such as female and minority students.

If the Regents approve the measure at their March 23 meeting, the reporting requirement would become effective beginning in September 1985. But between passage of the rule and its effective date, the state would have to "specifically delineate its role in stepping into those low-performing schools," Mr. Frey said.

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