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Blueprint for State's New School System Advances in Kentucky

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A Kentucky task force last week finished work on blueprint for the top-to-bottom restructuring of the state's precollegiate education system.

The panel offered its recommendations for reform of the financing, governance, and curriculum of the schools in response to the Kentucky Supreme Court's decision in June 1989 declaring the state's entire educational system unconstitutional.

Among the changes urged by the panel are the adoption of a performance-based system of rewards and sanctions for schools and teachers, a complete reorganization of the education department, the creation of a professional-standards board for teachers, and the at-large election of school-board members.

The proposal also includes a controversial provision that would limit the amount that relatively wealthy districts could spend on their schools.

The plan now goes to the full legislature, which observers expect will approve it this month with some amendments.

The plan is expected to be funded over the next two years by a revenue package raising nearly $1 billion through increases in the corporate and tobacco taxes, a tax on services, and changes to make state tax rules conform with the federal tax code.

The education reforms and the taxes are expected to be joined together, so that legislators will be able to cast a single vote for or against the entire package.

The task force, which included key legislative leaders and representatives of Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson's administration, worked for eight months to develop its plan.

The final component of the plan to be approved was a new school-finance formula, which was worked out in closed-door negotiations late last month between the Governor and the chairmen of the House and Senate revenue committees.

New Finance Formula

The finance plan seeks to achieve through a variety of means the court's goal of reducing funding disparities among districts, including increases in general state aid for all districts, additional state funding for low-wealth districts, and limits on additional local tax efforts for the schools.

John Augenblick, a Denver-based school-finance consultant, helped the task force devise the formula.

Under the proposed funding formula, all districts would receive state-aid increases of between 5 percent and 25 percent for the next two years.

The plan would abolish the state's existing basic-grant and equalization programs, replacing them with the "Support Education Excellence in Kentucky" program, which would be implemented over four years.

The seek program would guarantee an amount of revenue for each student that could be adjusted annually. For fiscal 1991, that amount would be $2,305, rising to $2,415 the next year. Currently, state aid for each student is $1,777.

The state would continue to provide funds for transportation and for exceptional children. But a third category would be created to aid districts serving students from low-income families, by adding in funds for each student who qualifies for the federal free-lunch subsidy.

Also, districts would receive an additional $128 per student in fiscal 1991, and $274 per student in fiscal 1992, to carry out certain reforms.

The minimum tax effort required of districts would increase from 25 cents to 30 cents for each $100 of assessed property valuation. Districts could choose to raise that amount through property taxes or other means.

Under the proposal, a two-tier system would allow a district to go beyond the minimum effort, but no more than 30 percent above the combination of basic state aid and minimum local tax effort.

The first tier would allow a district to increase spending by 15 percent. Some state aid would be avail4able to those property-poor districts wishing to increase their effort.

Through a complicated formula, each district would be able to raise taxes as if it had property value of $225,000 for each pupil. Those with more property wealth would not receive additional state funds, but those with less would get state aid on a sliding-scale basis.

Those districts wanting to raise an additional 15 percent would move to the second tier. There would be no state aid in the second tier, and a local referendum would be required for those taxes.

Senator Michael R. Moloney, chairman of the Senate appropriations and revenue committee, has defended the funding limit as necessary to avoid future lawsuits over inequalities in spending between districts.

But several of the wealthier districts in the state object to the limitation. Two of the state's 177 school districts are at the tax limit now. Other districts, particularly those experiencing growth in their tax base, fear it is only a matter of time before they will reach the ceiling.

"I personally think the cap is a backwards approach to equity," said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. "I suppose one way to keep the districts close together is to keep the top from going up, but a better way is let the top go up naturally and keep the bottom going up with it," he said.

Governance Changes

Because the court ruling went beyond financing issues and ordered the legislature to revise all parts of the school system, the task force has recommended several changes in the area of governance. Vern Cunningham, an education consultant from Columbus, Ohio, advised the task force in this area.

At the state level, the plan calls for an appointed state commissioner of education to be named by a panel chosen by the governor and legislative leaders. Subsequent commissioners would be hired by a reconstituted state board of education.

The plan calls for a state referendum in which voters would be asked to abolish the elected office of superintendent of public instruction. That idea has been rejected at the polls several times in the past, however.

The first task of the new commissioner, who would take office in January 1991, would be to redesign the entire education department. The plan calls for the abolition of all current departmental jobs by June 30, 1991.

This idea has drawn fire from many in the state, including the current state chief, John Brock.

All department employees working on adult education, vocational education, and rehabilitation services would be moved into a new workforce-development cabinet. But 538 employees working with elementary and secondary programs could lose their positions.

Other features of the governance plan include:

The creation of a new "office of educational accountability" to report to the legislature on the progress and effectiveness of reforms, and investigate fraud and wrongdoing;

New regional service centers to provide personnel training;

The appointment of a teacher-majority professional-standards board responsible for teacher training, certification, and ethical standards;

Requiring that all local school board members be elected at large and limiting local campaign contributions; and

Establishing new rules aimed at curbing nepotism in the hiring of school employees.

Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an influential citizen-advocacy group, welcomed the stricter regulations.

"The governance plan confronts some age-old problems that have bothered the tax-paying public for a long time," he said. "The legislative leaders have shown new courage on this topic."

Rewards and Sanctions

The linchpin of the proposal's extensive curriculum reforms would be a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on performance. David W. Hornbeck, from the Washington-based law firm of Hogan and Hartson, was the author of this part of the plan.

The state board of education would set out performance goals, and schools would be measured every two years against their past performance level in order to qualify for bonuses or sanctions. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1990.)

David Allen, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said the union has tentatively endorsed the curriculum proposals, including the rewards and sanctions.

"There have been major improvements in the plan and we are especially pleased that the document clearly states that the bonuses are no substitute for increased salaries," Mr. Allen said.

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