Kentucky Panel Calls for School-Aid Overhaul
Kentucky must equalize spending among school districts, revise its tax system, and significantly boost its share of school revenues if it is to fulfill its obligation to children under the state constitution, an advisory committee appointed by a state trial judge has concluded.
"The caprice of local political conditions cannot be permitted to harm the educational opportunity of a child," the five-member panel wrote in its Sept. 15 report to Franklin Circuit Judge Ray Corns, who declared the current school-aid system unconstitutional last May.
Although the "time-honored concept of local control is desirable and should be assured and safeguarded," the group added, ultimate responsibility for public education rests with the legislature.
"The state system must form a cohesive whole and cannot be merely a conglomeration of local independent initiatives," it said.
While the committee outlined the general direction it believes the state must move in, it purposely declined to offer specific recommendations. According to John Brock, the state school superintendent and a member of the panel, the group "didn't want to usurp the prerogative of the General Assembly."
Lawmakers harshly criticized Judge Corns's decision to create the committee, arguing that judicial imposition of its recommendations would violate the principle of separation of powers.
But in spite of such criticism, sever4al key legislators gave low marks to the report for its lack of specificity.
"I hope Judge Corns gets more out of [the report] than I did," said House Speaker Don Blanford, who had urged fellow lawmakers to boycott public hearings held by the panel this summer. "To be honest, it is so vague that it isn't going to be that helpful."
"I think it is a good term paper, although I wouldn't raise it to the level of a dissertation," added Senator Mike R. Moloney, chairman of the chamber's appropriations and revenue committee. "They skirted around the issues, and I think that will hurt the credibility of the report."
Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, acknowledged that he and other backers of school-finance reform "would have loved a harder-hitting report."
"But I think there is guidance there that could be held out as the standard that the legislature and the Governor should try to meet," he added.
In its report, the committee recommended that a new school-fi8nance system be phased in during the next four years. At the end of that period, it said, school spending should be fully equalized and an overall enhancement of funding for education should be achieved.
The panel insisted that money should not be taken away from relatively affluent districts and given to poorer ones to achieve equalization.
"No district in Kentucky is presently so well funded that it can afford to lose current revenues in order to equalize other school districts," it stated.
The panel said that state and local tax systems will have to be modified in order to generate the additional funds that will be needed to achieve equalization.
"If resources from local taxation continue to be an important part of school revenues, then state guarantees should be in place to prevent taxpayer antipathy toward taxes from hindering, retarding, or preventing the maintenance of an efficient school system," the committee said.
It also recommended that the legislature consider revising a 1965 tax "rollback" law that Judge Corns had identified as a primary cause of spending disparities among districts.
The committee also issued several recommendations on ways to improve student achievement and the quality of instruction.
For example, the group urged the adoption of new and more rigorous school-accreditation standards, and said the state should ensure the uniformity of educational offerings.
The committee also said that the state should take steps to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a career choice and should improve its teacher-training programs.
In a separate section of its report, the committee attempted to define the state's responsibilities under the constitution's mandate to "provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the state."
According to Mr. Brock, the provision "had not been clearly defined and different people read those words and believed they meant different things."
"We tried to establish for the record the intent of the phrase," the superintendent said.
Judge Corns is expected to issue his final ruling in the lawsuit on Oct. 15. State lawmakers and the state board of education have already announced that they will attempt to appeal that ruling directly to Kentucky's supreme court.