Ky. Educators Hail Bill's School Reforms And New Money
Mount Vernon, Ky--The massive education package approved two weeks ago by the Kentucky legislature, which has drawn intense national attention for being on the cutting edge of school reform, looks a bit different when viewed from the craggy hills of this impoverished rural area.
To be sure, the 170 teachers and administrators of the Rockcastle County school system, based here, mostly welcome the radical changes in school governance and regulation brought about by the legislation.
The bill, which is expected to be signed into law this week by Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson, has been hailed by education experts for such innovations as altering the role of the state education department, mandating site-based management, creating a statewide system of rewards and sanctions for schools, and focusing on early childhood education through pre-kindergarten programs and ungraded primary schools.
For this district and its 3,000 students, however, more immediately important is one very practical implication of the law--new money.
The district, which was party to the school-finance suit that ultimately led to passage of the bill, expects to receive a 23 percent increase in funding from the state next year.
With the additional $1 million, said Superintendent Bige W. Towery, the district hopes to provide new or expanded services that are taken for granted in many wealthier districts.
In Rockcastle County, then, the first sign of the landmark reform law will be music teachers, art programs, and counselors.
Located on the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains, Rockcastle County is rich in hill heritage, but poor in economic resources.
There are only a couple of small industries in the county, and many of the 14,000 residents travel to adjoining towns for work.
"In the past, there has been little economic growth here, but we hope that will change, " said Mr. Towery, pointing to a planned theme park based around a nationally known bluegrass-music show held in the county each Saturday night.
That expansion, which will create an estimated 400 jobs, will be the first source of new employment in the county for years. Many of the students in Rockcastle County schools are considered economically disadvantaged, with 65 percent qualifying for the federal free-lunch program. The state average is about 35 percent.
The county's endemic poverty had everything to do with the district's decision to become one of the 66 school districts that jointly filed a lawsuit in 1985, asking the courts to rule the state's school-financing system unconstitutional.
"We joined the suit for very basic reasons," said Mr. Towery. "We realized that poorer districts do have some disadvantages, and without some money we couldn't address those."
The case went to the state supreme court, which last year struck down not only the school-financing method, but also the entire system of elementary and secondary education.
"We were really surprised to see the issue of adequacy, as well as equity, addressed by the court," said Mr. Towery.
The new money resulting from the ruling and the subsequent legislation will push the budget for the district's five schools over $7 million. Mr. Towery said he hoped the money would go toward purchasing instructional materials and computers, hiring more music teachers, art teachers, and counselors, and keeping on the school psychologist, whose salary was partly funded with grant money.
"We hope that all four of our K-8 schools won't have to share one music teacher anymore," he said.
But while the hopes of educators here are focused on additional resources, their anxieties--like those of many of their colleagues around the state--are focused on the host of fundamental changes that are set to take place.
"It will really be a shake4up in the way schools are organized," said Mr. Towery.
James Young, superintendent of schools in Russellville, near the Tennessee border, agreed. "There has never been anything so radical on a statewide basis," he said.
Mr. Towery, Mr. Young, and many other educators in the state say their primary concern about the act is its mandate for site-based management.
Under the new law, one school in each district will have to participate in site-based management beginning with the next school year. After that, the concept will be expanded to include all schools in which a two-thirds majority of the faculty votes for shared decisionmaking. The goal is to have most schools operating under the method within five years.
The law mandates that schools establish councils composed of three teachers, two parents, and the principal.
The specificity of that mandate has come under severe criticism from many school administrators. As Mr. Young observed, "It flies in the face of the whole concept of giving local schools more freedom."
In response to those concerns, the Senate amended the plan to allow schools to get waivers if they choose another council structure.
"I think we have it loose enough now that we can make it work," said Donald Ingwerson, superintendent of schools for Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.
Jefferson County, which initiated a nationally recognized school-reform effort several years ago, already has more than 90 schools participating in site-based management.
Many of those schools have committees that would not meet the state mandate. But Mr. Ingwerson expressed the hope that, with some minor changes--and, in some cases, waivers--the district will be in compliance.
"We are not locked into a method," explained Jack Foster, Governor Wilkinson's education aide. "But absent any willingness on the part of a local district to think of a way to do site-based management, then we have provided a structure."
But even with that promise of flexibility, many educators are still unsure of the implications of the plan.
The apprehension may be felt most strongly by school principals, said Roger Conwell, principal of the Fern Creek Elementary School in Louisville. The site-based-management provision "leaves the role of the principal undefined," he noted.
"To remove leadership and authority and put them in the hands of committees is possibly a mistake," Mr. Conwell said.
Ronnie Cash, principal of Rockcastle County High School, also is apprehensive. "What are the principal's roles? What are his duties? What authority is he going to have?" he asked.
Answering those questions, calming the fears of educators, and making them aware of the various provisions in the plan, say those who helped devise it, will be the first major task in implementation.
"The state will have to spend an important amount of time during the next year helping the instructional staff all over the state to consider all elements of the plan and to discuss it and understand it," said David W. Hornbeck, a former state superintendent in Maryland and the author of many parts of the new system.
"It is very comprehensive, relatively complex, and calls upon many people to do many things very differently," Mr. Hornbeck added.
Mr. Cash agrees. "I think we will all feel more comfortable when we can sit down and study the reform act," he said. "I'm looking forward to the time when I have the answers in my hand and I don't have to run for the morning newspapers."
The state department of education has scheduled six regional information sessions next month to educate district administrators about the new law.
State leaders apparently will confront some skeptical attitudes in their efforts to secure broad support for the plan. Some educators expressed anger about being shut out of the negotiations over the new school system.
"We don't really know if this plan is going to be realistic," said Iris Young, an English teacher at Rockcastle High. "None of [the legislators] talked to any schoolteachers that I know, even though they say we are going to have a larger voice in things."
Jim Cox, a biology teacher at the school, expressed the fear that this plan, like other reform plans in the past, will be scrapped in a few years.
"Too many people right now are looking at this as one more two-year or four-year administrative or legislative change," he said, "that is going to go the same way every other legislative change has."
Mr. Foster, the gubernatorial aide, said those sentiments were understandable. "We have created a lot of legitimate cynicism," he said. ''Because of efforts previously in this state and in others, people have the tendency to say, 'Here we go on the merry-go-round again."'
"But we will deal with the fears and the concerns and you will see a great institutional response to the law," he added.
And most educators, though skeptical, said they were eager to become involved in the plan once they understand what their role is. Many said they had no problems with the new system of rewarding schools that improve and imposing sanctions on those that do not--provided they are given clear direction from the start.
"I don't have any problem being held accountable as long as somebody tells me exactly what I will be held accountable for," said Ms. Young. The English teacher said she viewed the creation of new performance measures, especially a writing assessment, as key to the plan.
Putting in place such an assessment system, said Mr. Foster, will be a task of formidable proportions. "When you are pioneers, you are not going to build the ultimate model the first time," he said.
The creation of the new assessments will largely be the responsibility of the department of education, which at the same time will also be undergoing major changes.
"The way we are organized now does not directly relate to the functions spelled out in the reform legislation," said Betty Steffy, the department's deputy superintendent of instruction.
The new law will shift the focus of the department from regulatory enforcement to technical assistance.
"Technical assistance has not been viewed as our major role in the past," Ms. Steffy observed. "Now the regulatory function will still be there, but technical assistance will drive the department."
Making the changes at the state and local levels, Ms. Steffy and others said, will take time and commitment from not only educators, but also legislators, business leaders, parents, and communities as a whole.
Robert K. Lewis, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said the business community was willing both to pay the 1 percent corporate-income-tax increase for the reforms and to continue to be aggressive in supporting education.
"The business community feels that the decade of the 90's is so important for Kentucky's future that we are willing to continue to pay our part to ensure a well-educated workforce," Mr. Lewis said. "The implementation of the plan is very important, and we want to see that the resources go where they have the greatest impact."
And educators, despite their uneasiness about some provisions, seem willing to give the plan a try.
"The biggest task will be translating the plan from policy and law to the classroom," said Mr. Ingwerson of Jefferson County. "But I believe it will work. We will make it work."
Mr. Cash of Rockcastle High agreed: "When it is signed and handed down to us, and it says 'This is what we are going to do,' then we will do it. And our kids will be the winners."