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Starting From Scratch

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Throughout this decade of school reform, some educators and policymakers have wistfully yearned for the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and design an entirely new school system.

In Kentucky, that dream--some say nightmare--has come true.

Earlier this year, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the General Assembly had failed to provide the "efficient system of common schools'' required in the state's constitution, and ordered lawmakers to craft a new system.

Acting in a finance case brought by 66 property-poor districts, the court struck down not only Kentucky's school-finance laws, but also "the whole gamut of the common-school system,'' including laws creating school districts, school boards, and the state education department, as well as laws governing such matters as teacher certification and school construction.

Never before has a state or federal court issued so sweeping an order in a suit challenging inequities in state spending for schools.

In response, the legislative task force formed to oversee the redesign is considering some radical--and in some cases seemingly contradictory--ideas for school governance. Some proposals control of the schools away from local school districts to the state, while others call for more decisionmaking power by educators at the school site.

Educators and policymakers nationwide are watching the predominantly rural state to see how it responds to the unusual challenge thrust upon it by the court. ``What Kentucky does will have a good deal of national significance,'' Frank Newman, the executive director of the Education Commission of the States, told the legislative task force last summer.

Officials in school districts in several other states say the surprising ruling in Kentucky has them thinking about filing similar lawsuits.

The court didn't give Kentucky lawmakers much time to complete their daunting task. A new system must be in place by April 15, 1990, when the court will officially void all laws currently on the books.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, the legislative task force has asked for an extension. But the panel--made up solely of legislators and representatives from the governor's office--is charging ahead in an effort that could make the Kentucky school system one of a kind.

Several innovative ideas have been proposed. One under consideration would turn the state's academicbankruptcy law upside down. Instead of districts remaining locally controlled until they fail to meet certain standards, all districts would come under state control until they "earn their freedom.''

Another proposal attracting favorable attention would establish two separate state education agencies to do the job now being done by one. One of the agencies would monitor schools, the other would assist them.

Betty Steffy, the state's deputy superintendent for public instruction, told the task force that under the current system problems can arise when state officials both monitor and assist troubled school systems.

"District personnel don't know if [a state official] is a coach or a cop,'' Steffy said. "They can't really be candid in admitting problems if they know the same person is going to evaluate required progress.''

But perhaps the most sweeping and politically complicated proposal is one that would abolish locally elected school boards in favor of appointed "governing councils.'' Nominees for these councils would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Roger Noe, a task force member and the chairman of the House Education Committee, said he has proposed abolishing school boards because the court ordered the General Assembly to ensure that schools are operated with "no mismanagement and with no political influence.'' Critics charge that favoritism and nepotism have long plagued Kentucky schools. "One method to diminish the political influence is to have appointed school boards,'' Noe says.

The influential lawmaker has also proposed that local superintendents be appointed by the state or by the local councils working from a list of candidates already approved by the state.

While the task force is seriously studying proposals that would dramatically shift control of schools away from districts, it also has been viewing with equal vigor the idea of giving educators in the schools more decisionmaking authority. The governance subcommittee recently devoted a meeting to the idea, and the state affiliate of the National Education Association has been promoting the concept.

"There are two directions going at once,'' says Robert Sexton, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group, and a close observer of the task force's work. "We are talking about local leadership and site-based management on the one hand, and greater state control on the other.''

But Noe argues that the two proposals do not necessarily clash. "One does not need a locally elected school board for site-based management to occur,'' he says.

Task force members say that at this early stage in the process, they are considering all ideas and have settled on none.

--Reagan Walker, Education Week

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