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Ky. Officials Announce 'Corrections' to Reform

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Acknowledging a growing public backlash to Kentucky's landmark 1990 school-reform law, top state education officials have offered a handful of amendments to the program meant to address some practical problems and placate critics.

Facing a legislature full of new faces and a rising tide of opposition to new mandates, Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen conceded this month that "course corrections'' in the reform law were necessary, including putting off sanctions against low-performing schools that were to have taken effect this year.

Observers said that the delayed sanctions were both an effort to relieve teachers who feel swamped by the rapid-fire changes and a recognition that the release of test scores on which the sanctions would be based have come too late to give many districts sufficient chance to improve.

"They're not off the hook, they're just getting a reprieve,'' Mr. Boysen said of the proposal. "We're dealing with the potential for a feeling of unfairness.''

The reform law--passed after the state supreme court declared Kentucky's education program unconstitutional--required all of the state's schools to demonstrate academic improvement.

For those that exceeded performance goals, the law offered incentive funding, which Mr. Boysen said should be administered this year as planned. For districts that did not improve, state assistance was ordered. In districts that got markedly worse, employees were to be subject to firing and students would be allowed to transfer.

Delayed Sanctions

Under the changes requested by Mr. Boysen, "schools in crisis'' would not be designated until 1996.

Among other changes he requested from lawmakers:

  • High school assessments would be given to students in the 11th grade rather than the 12th grade. Administrators and teachers argued that many seniors did not take the tests seriously enough, resulting in lower-than-expected scores for their schools.
  • Members of school-based-decisionmaking councils would serve two-year terms instead of one year, allowing for more continuity.
  • Programs for gifted and talented students would be fully funded--an effort to show the importance of high-level programs in the wake of criticism that the law, aimed at improvement for all students, will focus too much on slower students.
  • Goals calling for self-sufficiency and "responsible group membership,'' which are particular targets for critics and troublesome for administrators who were unsure how to accurately measure such traits, would be eliminated.

Reform-law advocates called Mr. Boysen's proposal an appropriate response to logistical problems and grassroots activism that has been growing more intense.

A rally this month by reform-law opponents drew between 300 and 500 people to Frankfort, the state capital. The number was far short of what organizers had hoped for, but was still seen as a sign of intense feeling against the law.

Groups Mulling Response

Education groups are still struggling to formulate their response to the education-reform program. Following Mr. Boysen's announcement, the Kentucky School Boards Association criticized the delay of sanctions as an illustration that school councils, which the K.S.B.A. has strongly opposed, are not being held accountable for their work.

For officials concerned with preserving the reform law in an uncertain climate, bending some provisions seemed an easy step.

"Some of these changes are very important programatically, and others are more important politically, but a good program is good politics, too,'' said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee, a grassroots coalition that has championed school reform in Kentucky.

"The state is listening to people's concerns, but also reflecting reality,'' Mr. Sexton said, arguing that the reform goals of self-sufficiency and group membership are concepts that are not widely measured and are unnecessary as a barometer of the law's effectiveness.

Such value-oriented topics have sparked similar controversy in other states.

"The language here does not go nearly as far as it did in Virginia or Pennsylvania,'' Mr. Sexton said. "But why not just get it off the table?''

"All of the features stay in place; they just get adjusted a little bit,'' said Mr. Boysen, who called the changes an important attempt to give teachers and administrators working under the law a greater sense of involvement.

"We will continue to have attacks on public education, and people who feel this is an assault on religion,'' he said, "but there are also people who have a grievance, and we need to make adjustments based on their concerns.''

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