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Ky., Ala. Seen Barometers of State Reforms

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Intense battles being waged this winter in Kentucky and Alabama over education reform could set the direction of future state school-improvement efforts nationwide.

The legislative struggles appear to be bringing to a head the increasingly frequent conflicts in states between advocates of innovative reform strategies, as outlined by many national education groups and theorists, and vocal groups of educators, parents, and conservative activists who say the reforms are sacrificing academic competency to untested ideas and social engineering.

In Alabama, the House last week was beginning work on a court-ordered comprehensive reworking of the state's education and school-finance systems. Although the legislation passed the Senate easily, it faces a tougher fight in the House, where opponents are pushing what they call a "back to basics'' reform bill.

In Kentucky, the issue is the fate of the state's 1990 reform law, which is widely regarded as the leader in statewide school restructuring. The measure has never been popular with certain education interests, and opposition has grown enough in the past year to make backers fear it could be vulnerable in the legislature.

Kentucky officials recently announced a handful of "course corrections'' aimed at allaying public complaints and heading off more drastic action. But supporters acknowledge that they must be prepared to defend the reform program over the long haul.

The national significance of the debates in the two states is underscored by the involvement of outside groups. Backers of the Kentucky law are regularly consulting with national reform leaders, while conservative groups such as the Eagle Forum are actively promoting the alternative plan in Alabama.

Alliances between the two states have also formed. Busloads of Alabama activists drove to Kentucky last month for a rally against the reform law, and Kentucky education officials have spoken on behalf of the bill the Senate passed.

Outside education-policy observers say they are following the results closely.

"Alabama and Kentucky are both becoming watched nationally because they involve hotly contested issues: standards, outcomes-based education, and school funding,'' said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for School Reform.

"What has long been acceptable for education groups is now unacceptable to a lot of people,'' said Ms. Allen, a former education analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Battle Over Outcomes

Beginning last year in Pennsylvania, public uneasiness over education-reform plans geared toward defined student outcomes has led to organized opposition in many parts of the country. Critics are upset with goals that stray from academic competency, as well as with new methods of testing and efforts to cast teachers more as student coaches.

"Every state is dealing with outcomes and values and how they are defined,'' added Lynn M. Cornett, the vice president for state services for the Southern Regional Education Board. "And part of the discussion is the political attacks in state after state.''

Indeed, if the reform packages are to withstand legislative tinkering in Kentucky and win lawmakers' backing in Alabama, observers say supporters must address several problems that have thus far vexed advocates of change. Observers note, for instance, that:

  • State-led reform campaigns stress local flexibility and decisionmaking, but lack support from many of the local administrators, teachers, and citizens they are supposed to empower.
  • Groups opposing the leading education-reform plans represent a diverse constituency. They cite concerns ranging from practical questions about programs to charges of state mind control.
  • Backers of innovative reforms are being challenged not only to explain the details of their programs in terms that voters can understand, but also to show a need for sweeping changes in schools that many parents already find satisfactory.

With resistance becoming clear, the challenges to Kentucky's law and Alabama's reform plan are a high-stakes political test.

Questions in Kentucky

Although the legislators who drafted the Kentucky reform law are optimistic that it will survive this year's session, they are concerned about the growing number of new lawmakers whose knowledge of the reform program may have come chiefly from hearing the complaints of local educators.

In brief, the reform measure set higher standards for student achievement, called for new methods to assess that achievement, created rewards and sanctions for schools that met or failed to meet the standards, significantly changed school governance, and revamped the finance system.

Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen last month moved to respond to educators' chief complaints. Mr. Boysen's proposed amendments--together with a lighter-than-expected turnout at the opposition rally--appear to have averted supporters' worst fears. But criticism continues. (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1994.)

"They made an effort, but they didn't answer a lot of concerns,'' said Rep. Charlie Walton, a middle school science teacher who says he is frustrated with the Kentucky Education Reform Act. "I'm listening to people who are out there in schools, and meeting with parents and teachers, and the majority want to see us make changes.''

At the same time, some reform advocates, including the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group, are rethinking their public-relations strategy in hopes of winning greater local understanding and support.

"Some people have raised legitimate questions,'' said Sen. David K. Karem, the majority leader. "We've got to tell the public in emphatic terms and simple English why we are doing this and what it is all about.''

Alabama's Public Debate

In many respects, the Alabama debate has become the public hearing the Kentucky school reforms never had. After the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1989 declared the entire education system unconstitutional, key lawmakers closed ranks and developed their plan in tightly held sessions.

The call for comprehensive reform in Alabama has been led by A-Plus, a citizens' coalition, which became interested in the Kentucky law after repeated education reforms in Alabama yielded little improvement in the state's schools.

Last year, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eugene W. Reese ruled that the state was failing to equitably fund schools and adequately educate children. His court order for fundamental change has forced a reluctant legislature into serious action.

"What we learned after talking to a lot of states, including Kentucky, was that the reforms embraced by states in the 1970's and 1980's relied on a laundry list of programs stressing basic competencies that did not help improve achievement much,'' said Cathy Gassenheimer, the managing director of A-Plus. "We were attracted to what Kentucky had done because of its systemic nature.''

In the weeks since Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. unveiled his bill, which has the backing of A-Plus and was crafted with the help of David W. Hornbeck, a national education consultant who was a chief architect of the Kentucky law, critics have seized on its similarities to the Kentucky reforms.

Representative Walton and some other Kentucky legislators have written to their Alabama counterparts to urge them to take a close look at the proposed reforms. One disgruntled Kentucky teacher sent her complaints to every newspaper editor in Alabama.

In most cases, the Kentucky critics have been organized by SCORE 100, an Alabama grassroots coalition that is offering the back-to-basics reform plan.

"A lot of people in Kentucky are concerned about what is happening there, and we saw it about to happen here,'' argued Stephanie Bell, the executive director of SCORE 100. "We have had Kentucky to benefit from. We wanted to stop it before it was put into effect.''

SCORE 100's plan--featuring required phonics instruction, open enrollment between school districts, teacher-pay raises, and a mandate that more state funding be devoted to classroom spending--has won an endorsement from the Alabama Education Association. The powerful teachers' union is led by Mr. Folsom's chief rival for control of the state Democratic Party, Paul R. Hubbert.

A-Plus and the Governor, in the meantime, have called in Kentucky's top refomers for both public and private help.

"I'm a person who loves a fight,'' Senator Karem said. "But of all the political fights I've been involved in, this has brought out the most unique lies I've ever heard.''

'Everybody Is Watching'

Kentucky officials are trying to distill lessons from the Alabama debate for their own fight.

"It has been very instructive,'' said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee. "The intensity and reality in Alabama are more than here.''

"Out of this, we are beginning to develop some strategies for dealing with the public,'' added Penney Sanders, the director of the Kentucky Office for Education Accountability. "We have identified a lot of key issues, but we don't think for a moment that we've resolved the problem.''

Outside observers, meanwhile, see Alabama's struggle as an important sign of public sentiment toward comprehensive reform based on the Kentucky model.

A loss for Governor Folsom's plan may make other states hesitant to follow the same path. Similarly, if Kentucky legislative leaders cannot preserve the key tenets of their law, there could be a major change in the course of reforms.

"Everybody is watching Kentucky because it was a very far-reaching, comprehensive reform, and many states have a piece of that or are moving in that direction,'' Ms. Cornett of the S.R.E.B. said.

"These are the initial test beds for a set of ideas a lot of people around the country view as very important,'' said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who is working with reform supporters in Kentucky.

"The problem is a lot of very decent people don't understand the idea of changing education so that it is organized to produce much different performance by kids,'' he added. "We have to help them understand why we think it is important.''

"States should want to see results, people should want to see success before they go along,'' Ms. Allen countered. "We don't know if the Kentucky model works or not. If people in schools are saying it might have mucked them up, that needs to be heard.''

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