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Published in Print: April 10, 1991, as After First Year, Ky. Reforms Called 'on the Move'

After First Year, Ky. Reforms Called 'on the Move'

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Stanton, Ky--Having grown up here in Powell County, on the western edge of Appalachia, Superintendent Jim Potts knows that school officials who push for higher taxes often do not last long.

But this year, Mr. Potts readily admits, things are different. A local tax increase helped leverage $1.3 million in new state funding, a windfall that he hopes will finally enable this poor school district to buy more than futility.) A year after Kentucky launched what has been described as the nation's most comprehensive education-reform plan, many students in Powell County are finishing their first year in a school with a librarian, counselor, full-time art classes, aides as signed to assist potential dropouts, and watertight roofs--all luxuries for a county where property taxes generate just $116,000 a year. So, as spring fills the woods that rise around the Red River gorge here with clouds of crimson buds, Mr. Potts sees a similar process of rebirth going on in his 2,500-student school system.

"We just feel like we're on the move and feel like in a few years, we'll really be able to perform," said 0 Mr. Potts. "We've had a good start."0

Officials in the state capital of Frankfort and in school districts L$cross Kentucky also report a successful first year for the landmark $1.3-billion reform act, which was signed into law a year ago this week.
In just the past 12 months, many 0 schools have: raised local tax rates and received a corresponding increase in state aid; initiated preschool programs for poor 4-year-olds and extended-day tutorial programs; and launched planning for site-based decisionmaking, ungraded primary classrooms, and community service centers.

Perhaps more important than the flow of funds and stream of new programs, though, many educators who were initially skeptical of a bill drafted by legislators and out-of-state consultants have accepted the program. Like Mr. Potts, those who are actually putting the new system into practice are already beginning to boast of its results.

Despite a mammoth tax increase brought about through a rise in sales taxes, income-tax changes, and, in most areas, a property-tax increase, Kentuckians appear to have weathered both the current recession and last November's elections without showing major signs of the tax revolt seen in many other states. The cost of the education program has also been a secondary topic in this year's gubernatorial primaries, and acceptance of the school reforms continues to be reflected in statewide polling.

The past year has also seen the selection of the state's first appointed education commissioner and creation of a watchdog agency that will report to the legislature.

"Essentially, it's been a planning, organizing, and hiring year," said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy group. "In terms of putting people together to make this work over the long haul, by and large those people are in place. But at the same time, we've also seen the emergence of areas that are going to be especially tough."

'In the High 80's'

Lawmakers and advocates alike have registered complaints about L the reform law's school-technology plan, which is aimed at linking school record-keeping statewide and beefing up computer instruction. Others have voiced frustration over some districts' slow response to the school-based-decisionmaking plan, which will require each district to implement teacher-led councils in at least one school by July.

But legislators, who do not convene in regular session again until 1992, said they do not expect much interest in tinkering with the reforms even then.

"There are not, looming on the horizon, any major problems," said Senator David K. Karem, a member of the task force that wrote the bill. "In talking with the Senate leader ship, our mindset would be to open it up as little as possible."

Senator Michael R. Moloney, chair man of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, agreed with Mr. Karem. "Our task in 1992 will be the funding of the program," he said, adding that the necessary increases will not require additional taxes.

Several lawmakers last week said that beyond some concerns about the law's implementation, their goal is to maintain the package's momentum and assure educators the plan has their full backing.

Support from business leaders, constant attention from the state's two major newspapers, and continued interest from educators across the country have cast the law in a favorable light that lawmakers said they want to do nothing to dim.

"The kind of national attention we've gotten makes even the people who are nay-sayers think to them selves that maybe something was right about it," said Mr. Karem. "I think everyone has been very genuinely pleased with how it has gone-- not 100 percent, but in the high 80's."

No Tax Backlash

One telling sign of popular support for the reform law is that candidates who have tried to mine tax-rollback sentiment, either during last year's legislative elections or in the campaign for the upcoming primary for statewide offices, have mostly come up empty, said political observers.

"We're not seeing a backlash," L said Mr. Sexton. "Certainly not a backlash against the program itself, and interestingly, not a backlash against the tax increase. There has not been a candidate that has really articulated a position that has captured that sentiment if it's there."President Pro Tem of the Senate John A. Rose expressed confidence that most Kentuckians believe in a greater investment in education and have been satisfied with the reforms.

"This was talked about for two or three years, and we had been cut ting taxes, so most people understood that it was time to get more revenue," he said.

Also expressing optimism was David W. Hornbeck, the former Maryland state superintendent who served as chief consultant to the Kentucky legislature. Mr. Hornbeck said he was pleased with the political reception the costly reforms have received.

"I'm beginning to interpret this to mean the state of Kentucky recognizes that it's bitten into an unprecedented opportunity and that they are going to see it through," Mr. Hornbeck said. "You're not seeing the demagogues coming out of the woodwork trying to take advantage 0 of people's disaffection for the law."A more cautious assessment, how ever, came from Representative Roger Noe, chairman of the House Education Committee. Mr. Noe, one of the key drafters of the bill, said he was not yet convinced that education reform does not face potential trouble either in the May 28 primary election or in November.

"I'm one of those folks that says wait and see on Election Day, because, frankly, if one or two of those people win, the legislature is going to have a hard time holding onto what we've accomplished," he said. Mr. Noe identified two Republican gubernatorial hopefuls--Larry Forgy, a former state budget director, and U.S. Representative Larry J. Hopkins--as candidates who may turn against the school-reform plan.

One Democratic contender, Floyd Poore, has criticized the law, but he has trailed in early polls.

"There is the remote possibility that if the conservatives take hold this year in the election, they will make a concerted effort to dismantle the program, but I don't think that is going to happen," Mr. Noe said. "We're changing from a time when the reason you ran for the school board was to keep taxes low or vote for a coach or get a relative a job. People like that and appreciate it.

"Grievous Error' Seen

But if the political news so far has mostly been good for reform backers, many saw a potentially ominous sign last fall when the man who had launched the whole process criticized one of the law's key elements.

Ray Corns, who as a circuit-court judge in 1988 first ruled the state's school-finance system unconstitutional, said in announcing his candidacy for lieutenant governor that the bill's cost was "a grievous error."

Since then, Mr. Corns has often found himself, as he did in a breakfast interview late last month, explaining the early campaign references that criticized the tax increase tied to school reform.

"I'm fearful that by overtaxing, we still may alienate thousands of people whose support we need over the long haul," he said.

Mr. Corns complained that his tax position has wrongly been seen as a knock on the education plan. "Some people misunderstood what I was trying to share," he said.

"Perhaps they felt I was trying to undermine the security of the reform act. I think their fear is that if anyone talks about adjusting the tax base, it will impair the act," he said, adding that he has been pleased with the reforms themselves.

"I think over all it has been accepted with good spirit, but not everyone is convinced it will work. That's the sole reason I'm in the race," Mr. Corns added. "I'm like John the Baptist crying in the wilderness."

Observers said Mr. Corns has backed away from his attempt to win favor with disgruntled taxpayers, and the candidate indicated he wants to campaign as a friend of reform. He said he hoped fence-mending with education advocates would win their votes too.

"They and I are on the same team. We were there when this started, and we need to see this thing through," he said. "Thank God people are looking at Kentucky in a good way. We have been the laughingstock of education in this country for so long. We can't let the education child die."

Boysen's New Team

While Kentucky voters' choice for a new governor and other constitutional officers this fall will help shape the direction of reform, one office that will not be contested is that of the state school chief. The previous top education job, that of state superintendent, actually will be on the ballot. But the reform law stripped the position of all power and reduced it to a nominal salary.

Rather than furiously working the campaign trail, Thomas C. Boysen, Kentucky's first appointed education commissioner, has divided his time been traveling the state building support for reform and working on plans for restructuring the state education department.

The law calls for the abolition of the department on July 1 and its replacement by an entirely new agency under the control of the commissioner.

Mr. Boysen's selection as commissioner by a special state panel late last year was the most visible of a series of personnel moves aimed at creating a new team of reformers.

Observers said the arrival of Mr. Boysen, who had headed the San Diego schools, helped fill one of the reform puzzle's largest holes.

"He's brought a very positive attitude and a can-do spirit that he has been able to translate to superintendents," said Mr. Sexton of the Prichard Committee. "Prior to his coming, we essentially had a vacuum on that big platform."

"One of my concerns from July 13 [1990, when the law took effect] to Jan. 2 was that there were no personalities attached to the law," said K. Penney Sanders, director of the new office of education accountability set up by the reform law.

The accountability office will monitor the law's implementation, investigate irregularities, and conduct research. Much like some of the classroom programs, Ms. Sanders said, establishing her office has been an exercise in pioneering.

"We have no models, so we literally have to build the office not only with bricks and mortar, but with policy and mission," she said.

In its first months, the office has begun answering calls on an education hot line established last year to field questions from educators and parents. The office also has undertaken a few investigations and made contact with several superintendents, some of whom were surprised to learn of its existence, Ms. Sanders said."Once one or two got a call, suddenly no one was surprised," she said. "I think it's beginning to dawn on people this time is different."

A Different Department

The education department, which until now has presided over local systems' efforts to change, now finds itself on the brink of a fundamental shift in its own structure, methods, and goals. Mr. Boysen and a California management consultant are working with an internal task force and several local superintendents to develop an agency that will focus less on regulatory compliance and more on technical assistance.

The department should emerge with a more efficient design, for example with fewer deputies reporting directly to the commissioner, said Lois Adams, a former local school superintendent who has been named Mr. Boysen's chief of staff. Officials plan to unveil the department's new outline next month, allowing enough time to fill the positions by the summer.

Mr. Boysen plans to require all department workers to reapply for positions in the new agency. In spite of the temporary nature of their jobs, though, the staff has toiled to aid the reform effort, Ms. Adams said.

"No one is sitting back waiting for the department to be reorganized. These people have worked like Trojans," she said, noting that many workers have been encouraged by the new atmosphere in the department, which in the past was often seen as steeped in politics and patronage.

"Regardless of the anxiety that exists, people have had an opportunity for input, which has not always been the case here," said Ms. Adams, who also formerly served as the state's special-education director.

Ms. Adams said it was hard to describe the changes in the state agency, which she characterized as "horrendous" during her earlier tenure.

The transformation in Frankfort, along with new funding and new programs for many districts, has given education a fresh start across the state, she observed.

"I do not hear negative comments. I do not hear 'This too shall pass.' I'm sure that's there, but the vast majority is supporting it," Ms. Adams said. "We've gotten beyond seeing this as a monumental task to the point where people are now saying 'This is why I got into education in the first place."

Stanton's Working Model"

It is in schools such as Stanton Elementary that many of Kentucky's education reforms are already being put to the test. Like most schools in this historically poverty-ridden region, classrooms have worn desks and chairs, but beyond the facilities, little is old in this school.

Children are grouped in ungraded classrooms, work in teams, and abandon teacher-led textbook lectures in favor of observation and discussion. Student progress is judged by journals and work examples rather than tests. Teachers are participating in site-based decisionmaking.

Principal Faye King said the school is a working model of how the reforms can alter classrooms.

"Every single component of this school is in the reform," said the longtime principal.

This year's experience with school-based decisionmaking has helped galvanize change at the school, which has developed its experiments over several years.

"It's been difficult, but we've grown professionally," said Ms. King. "I've learned more this year than any single year in my career. This is a very different school now."

Viewing the statewide reforms in the microcosm of Stanton Elementary, Ms. King said a formerly isolated and competitive staff has become an energetic team and her typically L withdrawn students have emerged as active learners.

"There is no question in my mind that we're addressing several important issues through multi-age grouping," she said. "It is a kinder atmosphere. It is less competitive, meaning there is more teamwork. It brings out abilities that are difficult to assess, because the tests we ad minister deal with only a finite amount of human capacity--a very small and discrete part."

Although many of her fellow principals are only beginning to examine the elements of ungraded classrooms and site-based decisionmaking, Ms. King said they will find after working through the changes that all of the classroom and administrative reforms mesh together as promised. "I think a lot of people see it as a threat because there are new concepts that are not part of their exper ience or leadership style," she said. "But the success of this reform is not neatly packaged into its components of site-based management or ungraded primary. It's an evolutionary process that has a life of its own."$"I've become more converted than I was when I began," noted Ms. L Sanders. "Each piece fits and is so important. I see it as a holistic approach, where year one is a building block for years two and three."

"If you have a tendency to say, 'I don't like school-based decisionmaking,"' she continued, "you have to realize that's a critical act in putting in administrative flexibility, which is important for the new assessments."$"When you see it as what it is-- where every piece is linked--it's very exciting," Ms. Sanders said.

Getting the Big Picture

Even so, observers agree that any educators have yet to see that big picture. Without more information and training, analysts warn, school officials may continue to learn each new program as it is implemented piecemeal.

"The fruits of the bill we really L haven't felt yet," said Junior F. Poling, principal of Olive Hill Elementary School in eastern Kentucky. "Everything is still in the talking stage. At this point, the change is so radical, and there is so much to do, and there is so much information you have to have before you can get into it."

"There's a tremendous thirst for knowledge and people wanting to know, 'How do you keep up?"' said Ken Henson, dean of Eastern Kentucky University's college of education, where a recent seminar on ungraded primary schools was planned for 50 educators. Registration was cut off at 165.

" Explaining the reforms remains a challenge, he said, because the task is so great. "It's too big a job for the state department of education or for any one sector," he said. "We're talking about a work-culture change for the biggest single enterprise in the state."

"One of the biggest problems all of us are having is just attending the meetings we all must attend to make sure we're marching together," added Janice F. Weaver, dean of the college of education at Murray State University. Faculty members at Murray State are currently serving on reform task forces, working in planning groups with local school districts, and re-examining the college's own teacher-education program.

Information needs are yet to be met, agreed Mr. Hornbeck. But the attitudes of both those educators who are familiar with the program and those who are just wetting their feet are encouraging, he added.

Principal Poling said that the past year has seen a changed attitude among many in his district. "They are curious still," he said. "They were scared to death to begin with, but as we learn about it, we find it is not a monster but something to help us."Ms. King, the principal who is already trying the reforms, is willing to go further.

"This reform is the greatest hope we have ever known," she said. "I predict it will succeed, and when it does, it will have done what the New Deal did not accomplish and what the War on Poverty did not accomplish. We will have elevated the standard of living and productivity of my people forever."

Added Superintendent Potts: "I don't see how anyone can have a negative attitude when the legislature and Governor were willing to put that kind of money into the system. But it's a vicious cycle, especially from here to the West Virginia line, and it's hard to break that."

"It's very unusual for an eastern- Kentucky school district to have the courage to do what's right for kids," he said.'

"It is always possible for various affected constituencies to view the initiative as a glass half full or half empty," added Mr. Hornbeck. "I get a strong sense from talking to policymakers and teachers that, by and large, people are viewing the glass as half full. Maybe out of all of these things, that is the best news."

Vol. 10, Issue 29, Page 1, 20, 22

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