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Published in Print: September 10, 2003, as KERA: In Midlife Crisis Or Golden Years?

KERA: In Midlife Crisis Or Golden Years?

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In Kentucky's often bumpy road toward school improvement, the state is again struggling to keep its once-heralded reform programs moving forward as the obstacles that threaten the initiative continue to mount.

Districts are complaining that the state is not adequately funding the Kentucky Education Reform Act—known as KERA and are poised to file a lawsuit. The debate over how to measure student progress is also being complicated by the new federal education program's requirement that the state add new elements to its accountability system.

It's a marked contrast from the early 1990s, when districts were flush with new cash after the education package passed the legislature, creating one of the nation's most sophisticated and demanding state systems for tracking student learning. Kentucky seemed to be pointing the way for the nation.

Now, those school districts are threatening to sue the state because their funding is almost $1 billion shy of the amount they say is needed to pay for those measures.

"We've made significant progress in equity," said W. Blake Haselton, the superintendent of the 9,800- student Oldham County schools and the vice president of the Council for Better Education, a group representing 164 of the state's 176 districts. "We have not put a number on what it would cost to achieve those goals."

And even though the state has a well-established and widely accepted accountability program, it will eventually publish separate report cards to comply with new federal requirements. The adjustments needed to meet mandates under the federal No Child Left Behind law are helping to foment attempts to wipe out many facets of the state's 13-year-old education overhaul.

"I can't see any advantage of the No Child Left Behind Act for the students of Kentucky or for the system we have in place," state Rep. Jonathan Draud, a Republican and a former local superintendent, said at a legislative hearing here last month.

While all states face similar challenges of budget shortfalls and compliance with the federal law, Kentucky's case is exceptional, people here say, because the state has been on the same path for more than a decade, and the current climate could derail it.

"I am as worried about being pushed off that direction as much now as I have been for 13 years," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington-based citizens' group that's been one of the forces behind the state's efforts.

But critics of the Kentucky overhaul say the reform work done so far continues to be too expensive and may not yield the kind of testing data the state wants, especially since it goes beyond what is required by the federal law.

"The question is whether the current structure of our assessment and accountability [system] is worth the cost," said Sen. Dan Kelly, the Republican floor leader in the legislature's upper house.

Radical Change

Kentucky's education overhaul began with the state supreme court's 1989 decision declaring that the legislature had failed to meet its constitutional duty to create an "efficient" school system. The court ordered the legislature to "re-create and re-establish" the system. ("Entire Kentucky School System Is Ruled Invalid," June 14, 1989.)

Legislators responded the next year with a sweeping new law.

KERA established the nation's first statewide system of testing and accountability to measure progress by individual schools toward improving student learning. It poured more than $1 billion into precollegiate education in the first two years to pay for initiatives such as sanctions and rewards for schools, site-based school councils to assist in hiring and other decisions, and launching preschool programs.

Then, in 1998, the legislature revamped the testing and accountability program after complaints that the first version had yielded unreliable results and provided no data comparable with national norms. KERA critics used the debate to take aim at other elements of the reforms, and its supporters refer to it as "near-death experience" for the whole effort. The challenges now might be seen as a death by a thousand cuts.

Since the infusion of cash in the early 1990s, when districts received increases ranging from 8 percent to 25 percent a year, funding hikes have slowed to a trickle. Last year, for example, the state's funding formula rose just 2 percent over the previous year. But districts had to use a large portion to pay for a legislatively mandated raise for teachers. That has left little money to support other programs.

Lawmakers also cut several key KERA elements run by the state education department. It eliminated funding for regional technical-assistance centers and $21 million that had paid for bonuses to high-achieving schools.

KERA opponents, during this year's legislative session, suggested whittling away or even scrapping the state's $8 million testing program. They argued that federal funds from the No Child Left Behind Act would be sufficient to pay for the state's testing needs. The funding was preserved without sustaining any cuts.

Cuts: Big and Small

Like many states, Kentucky is facing revenue shortfalls, but local school officials here say the Bluegrass State's financial problems are forcing them to make choices that undermine the goals of the 13-year-old improvement efforts.

Many are delaying the implementation of full-day kindergarten, which is part of the reform's focus on early childhood education, according to David Barnett, an assistant professor of education at Morehead State University and a former superintendent in Fleming and Bracken counties.

Other districts are raising taxes, but still need to cut back. Fayette County raised real estate taxes to increase its budget by $6 million this year. But most of the new money went to teacher raises, according to Ken James, the superintendent of the 36,000-student, Lexington-based district.

While the changes appear to be small, they add up, according to a study commissioned by the Council for Better Education.

The research estimates that an adequate education, as defined by the state supreme court in 1989, would have cost $5 billion in the 2001-02 school year. That's about $892 million more than schools received from state, local, and federal sources, the study found.

The Council for Better Education is considering a lawsuit asking the state courts to order the legislature to provide the money to pay for an adequate education.

The council has postponed the suit to negotiate with lawmakers and candidates running for governor this fall. The group wants a commitment to raise school funding "over a period of time," said Jack Moreland, the group's president and the superintendent of the 4,300-student Covington Independent School District.

The phase-in could be as long as six years, depending on "how soon we get out of this funk economically," added Mr. Moreland, who has stepped away from day-to-day operations of the Council for Better Education while he's acting as an adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Chandler.

Depending on the results of the meetings, the council may go ahead with the suit as soon as this week, Mr. Haselton said.

Double Accountability

While the funding debate will have an impact in the long run, the state's compliance with the No Child Left Behind law will have a major impact next year.

Under the state accountability system, Kentucky issues school scorecards every other year and rates every school's progress toward reaching the goal of having every child scoring at the "proficient" level across six subject areas by 2014—a goal the state set before the No Child Left Behind law made it mandatory for all states. The next round of school reports will be released next year.

At the same time, the federal law will require Kentucky to issue separate school-by-school reports based on the federal accountability requirements. Federal officials said Kentucky didn't need to publish a new list of schools needing improvement because it had already done so last year and wasn't scheduled to publish an updated one under its biennial system until next year.

Because the federal and state accountability measures differ, state officials are bracing for the prospect that some schools will receive different ratings on separate scorecards. For example, a school may make the progress required under the state's goal of gradually improving overall performance across several subject areas. At the same time, it might be cited under the federal program for failing to improve the achievement of one of several demographic groups.

Rep. Draud said that explaining the results to the public will be difficult and confusing, potentially undermining trust in the state system.

Critics, though, add that changes to the state's program are inevitable, particularly given the $8 million cost of testing for the state accountability system.

"It will have to happen as the problems with the test will become more evident," Sen. Kelly said. "We'll have to make adjustments. It's just a matter of timing."

Vol. 23, Issue 2, Pages 18,21

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