Lawmakers in Ky. Approve Landmark School-Reform Bill
Kentucky legislators last week handed state educators a roadmap to reform when they approved a landmark education-improvement and revenue package.
Passage of the bill was lauded by many in the state as the most important action taken by the General Assembly this century and one of the most comprehensive restructuring efforts ever undertaken by a state legislature. The General Assembly was under a state supreme court order to revise the entire school system.
"This package has been hailed as one that will move Kentucky from last to first," said Greg Stumbo, the House majority floor leader, when the House voted last week to concur with the Senate version of the bill.
The vote to accept the Senate bill meant that the measure could bypass a conference committee, and thus move directly to the Governor for his signature.
The vote came after nearly a month of emotional and sometimes confrontational debate, and only one day before the session ended. But the final majority for the extraordinary bill apparently was achieved through rather ordinary political means.
House leaders reportedly dangled certain road and construction projects in front of reluctant House members until their votes were secured.
Governor Wallace G. Wilkinson, who was involved in negotiations with a special task force that worked for eight months drafting the bill, is expected to sign it.
"I don't think we realize yet just what an important and significant step we have taken for Kentucky's children," Mr. Wilkinson said in a statement. "We are seeing history in the making."
Senator Nelson Robert Allen, chairman of the Senate education committee, agreed. "For once, we will be able to point to something other than a basketball team," he said, " and say with pride that we are the first in the nation."
Closing the Gap
The eyes of the national education community turned to Kentucky last June, when the state supreme court handed down the most far-reaching decision ever in a school-finance case. The court ordered the General Assembly to revise not only the state's school-funding mechanisms, but also every other aspect of the school system.
The bill approved by the legislature will establish a new funding system designed to close the gap between the state's richest and poorest districts.
The bill also will establish a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on their performance, and provide for development of new techniques to assess student achievement. Schools will also be graded on student health, dropout and retention rates, and attendance—the first time, say backers, that such a system has been adopted statewide.
The bill also is the first in the country to mandate site-based management in every district, and ungraded instruction through the 3rd grade in every school. It also provides for regional inservice-training centers, alternative certification, and a state professional-standards board with a teacher majority.
Some of the most contentious issues during the debate focused on provisions barring nepotism in hiring, and school-employee participation in school-board elections.
The bill also dramatically alters the powers of local school boards, giving superintendents exclusive authority over hiring and firing decisions.
"I doubt that any legislature in the country has responded so strongly and forthrightly to a supreme court decision," said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group.
For many lawmakers, the most politically difficult part of the process was reaching agreement on the bill's $1.3 billion in tax increases, most but not all of which will go for education.
Under the bill, the state sales tax will rise from 5 cents to 6 cents, and the corporate tax rate will increase by 1 percent. New revenues will also be generated by changing state tax rules to conform to the federal tax code, and by eliminating the state income-tax deduction for federal taxes.
There was a chance late last week, however, that the elimination of the state deduction for federal taxes was in jeopardy, potentially affecting a 15 percent teacher pay increase over two years and funding for an important component of the finance plan.
Under the new finance system, a foundation program will guarantee districts a minimum level of state aid for each student, with extra per-pupil allotments for transportation, exceptional children, and students living in poverty. A minimum local property-tax effort of 30 cents per $100 of assessed valuation will be required.
If districts want to exceed the minimum local effort by 15 percent, then the state will match those funds on a sliding-scale basis. This is called "tier one" funding. Districts will be allowed to move to a second tier and raise their property taxes by another 15 percent, but the state will not match those funds.
But the first-tier funding would have been in jeopardy if the elimination of the deduction for federal taxes had not remained in the biennial budget measure that was approved separately by legislators late last week.
The House had adopted a plan that would have phased out the deduction over two years. That was passed on the assumption that the first-tier funding would not be needed until the next biennium.
But Michael R. Moloney, chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, disagreed with that interpretation, arguing that first-tier funding should begin in the current biennium. His committee, and the full Senate, passed an amendment that called for the elimination of the federal-tax deduction immediately, which would raise an additional $140 million over two years. The provision was included in Mr. Wilkinson's original tax plan.
Because the House voted to concur with the Senate's school-reform bill, the measure never went to a conference committee and that difference was not resolved. But some House members late last week were pushing to include their provision in the budget bill, which would have superseded the education package. But the budget bill approved last week did not call for any changes in the tax package.
The other controversial measure in the finance portion of the education bill was a House amendment that would have guaranteed each district an increase of at least 8 percent in state funding each year for the next four years.
That amendment, however, had the potential to drain funds from other parts of the bill. So the Senate drafted a compromise amendment that guarantees districts an 8 percent increase in the first year, 5 percent in the second year, and no guarantees thereafter.
In a separate bill, the legislature agreed to reform the property-assessment system by requiring that all real property be reassessed in the next four years.
The House passed its original version of the bill by a 58-to-42 vote, while the Senate adopted its bill by a 30-to-8 vote. The House then concurred with the Senate, again by a 58-to-42 vote.
Most of those voting against the bill cited the tax increases. The vote broke down mainly along party lines, with Democrats voting for the bill and Republicans against, although there were defections from both camps.
Floor debates, however, centered mainly on the bill's provisions against nepotistic hiring and school-employee participation in school-board elections, as well as its changes in school-board election procedures.
Critics made several attempts to soften the provisions on nepotism—which allegedly is widespread throughout the state—but without success.
The bill restricts school-board members, superintendents, and principals from hiring relatives to work in schools within their jurisdiction. Current school-board members whose relatives are employed in their system will have to step down at the end of their present terms.
The act also prohibits superintendents from promoting relatives who are already employed by their school system, and restricts a superintendent's spouse from holding most supervisory positions. It exempts schools from the prohibition on hiring a principal's relative if there is only one school of that type in the district.
Also adopted was a controversial provision prohibiting school employees from campaigning for candidates in school-board elections.
Backers of the provision said it would stem reported retributions against employees who had campaigned against a successful school-board candidate.
But the state's largest teachers' union opposed the provision as an infringement on teachers' rights.
"I am disappointed over the elimination of the political freedom of our teachers as it relates to school-board elections," said David Allen, president of the Kentucky Education Association. "But in terms of the final package, I think Kentucky will emerge with one of the best systems in the nation."
One provision that was included in the task-force plan, but deleted from the final bill, would have required candidates for school-boards seats to run at large, replacing the current system of election by sub-districts.
The task-force members had argued that at-large elections would lessen political influence in the schools. But opponents said such a system would do just the opposite, by giving countywide political organizations even more power.
The bill's mandate for site-based management appeared to evoke the most apprehension among educators. Under the measure, each district will have to designate one school to begin site-based management next year, with all schools participating by 1996.
The bill calls for creation of school councils, which are to consist of three teachers, two parents, and an administrator. Schools can adopt larger councils by adding six members at a time, keeping the same proportion of teachers and parents.
Some educators argued that mandating a rigid structure for the program appeared to conflict with the effort to give schools more freedom.
Educators were also unclear about the role of the principal, the superintendent, and the school board in decisionmaking—all questions with which others experimenting with site-based management around the country have had to grapple.
The Senate tried to clarify some of those questions by amending the plan to require that some site-based decisions be in accordance with local board policy, to make the school principal the chairman of the school councils, to develop a process for appealing decisions made by the councils, and to allow waivers for different council structures.
But legislators said that questions about the site-based management—as well as many other aspects of the bill—can only be answered once districts actually begin to implement its various provisions.
They are aware, they say, that there probably will be some glitches. "This is not an overnight fix," said Senator David K. Karem, who chaired the task force's curriculum subcommittee. "We will have to work six or eight years before we see results and have total reform of our system."