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Published in Print: March 6, 2002, as Activist Ky. School Leaders Back; Want New Aid

Activist Ky. School Leaders Back; Want New Aid

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The group that led the charge to overhaul Kentucky's schools a decade ago and then faded from the spotlight is again preparing for battle. This time, it wants generous funding increases for the state's public schools.

The Council for Better Education, a coalition of school districts that filed a lawsuit in 1985 that sparked major changes in schools statewide, is planning a research and lobbying campaign to win big funding increases similar to those that followed its 1989 victory in the state's supreme court.

"We've seen some of our market share erode over the years," compared with other state priorities, said Jack Moreland, the superintendent of the 4,500-student Covington schools across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. "We haven't addressed the concept of adequacy in this state at all."

School officials throughout the state decided to revive the organization after Gov. Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, proposed a fiscal 2003 budget in January that calls for a 2.7 percent increase in salaries for teachers but does not provide the state funding to pay for it, said Mr. Moreland, the council's president.

The proposal came on the heels of several years in which the K-12 spending increases didn't match those given by the state to higher education, prisons, and health care, he added.

They're Back

The group's meetings began, Mr. Moreland said, because the state has failed to keep pumping money into schools in the wake of the 1989 Kentucky Supreme Court decision that required the legislature to overhaul the state school system.

The court ordered the state to ensure that it was providing adequate funding for its schools and distributing the money equitably. Following the 1989 ruling, the legislature put major funding increases in its revamped school system until the mid-1990s. The revised funding formula channeled extra dollars to the poorest school districts.

But education advocates say education's share of the budget is waning.

In the 1995 school year, K-12 schools got 44.3 percent of the state's general fund. That percentage had slipped to 39.6 percent six years later, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. If K-12 education had maintained its share of the state budget at the 1995 level, schools would be receiving $160 million more state money than they are receiving this school year.

At the same time, however, overall per-pupil spending in the state's schools jumped from $4,000 in 1991 to $6,500 in 1999, according to Phillip W. Roeder, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. That increase is large enough that state officials could argue that schools have adequate resources to do what the state supreme court ordered, he said.

But arguing for major increases will be especially difficult now because the state is strapped for cash, Mr. Roeder added.

"I don't think they're going to be very successful," said Mr. Roeder, who has studied the impact of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which the legislature passed to comply with the supreme court decision. "I don't think there's going to be as much empathy for the adequacy question as there was 10 or 11 years ago."

But others say the council will play an instrumental role in an important debate as the Kentucky policy changes mature. Now that funding is equitable, they say, the state needs to decide how much money is enough to provide the schooling the state wants.

"That is where we think we need to go," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington-based group that supports the state's 1990 education law. Mr. Sexton is not a member of the council.

Research, Not Litigation

Mr. Moreland said the Council for Better Education will be hiring researchers to study how spending in Kentucky measures up against that of surrounding states and others throughout the nation. The council doesn't have plans to pursue legal action, he said.

In recent months, the council has held two informal meetings to revive the group. It also re-elected Mr. Moreland as the group's president—a position he held in the 1980s when he was superintendent of the Dayton Independent School District and the council sued the state on behalf of 66 school districts seeking a greater share of state funding.

So far, representatives from more than 100 of the state's 176 districts have attended the organizing meetings. The group's advisory council includes leaders from school districts representing the cities of Louisville and Lexington, Mr. Moreland said.

The group's leaders plan to meet later this month to discuss the questions around educational adequacy which they hope to have answered, at some point, as part of the council's new efforts.

Vol. 21, Issue 25, Pages 22,26

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