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From The Backwater To The Cutting Edge

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The new law has been hailed by education experts for such innovations as altering the role of the state education department, mandating sitebased management, creating a statewide system of rewards and sanctions for schools, and focusing on early-childhood education through pre-kindergarten programs and ungraded primary schools.

To be sure, the 170 teachers and administrators of the Rockcastle County school system, based in Mount Vernon, mostly welcome the radical changes in school governance and regulation brought about by the legislation. But for this district and its 3,000 students, more immediately important is one very practical implication of the law-- new money.

The county's endemic poverty was the key to its decision to become one of the 66 school districts that jointly filed a lawsuit in 1985 asking the courts to rule the state's school-financing system unconstitutional.

Many of the students in Rockcastle County schools are considered economically disadvantaged, with 65 percent qualifying for the federal freelunch program. The state average is about 35 percent.

"We joined the suit for very basic reasons,'' says Superintendent Bige Towery. "We realized that poorer districts do have some disadvantages, and without some money we couldn't address those.''

The case went to the state supreme court, which last year struck down not only the school-financing method, but also the entire system of elementary and secondary education. The ruling forced the Kentucky legislature to come up with a comprehensive educationreform bill.

"We were really surprised to see the issue of adequacy, as well as equity, addressed by the court,'' says Towery.

The reform package will establish a new funding system designed to close the gap between the state's richest and poorest districts. It calls for $1.3 billion in tax increases, most of which will go for education. The state sales tax will rise from 5 percent to 6 percent, and the corporate tax rate will increase by 1 percent.

The Rockcastle County school system expects to receive a 23 percent increase in funding from the state next year, which will push the budget for the district's five schools over $7 million. With the additional $1 million, says Towery, the district hopes to provide new or expanded services that are taken for granted in many wealthier districts.

But while the hopes of educators in Rockcastle County are focused on additional resources, their anxieties-- like those of many of their colleagues around the state--are focused on the host of fundamental changes that are set to take place.

In addition to the new funding system, the reform package establishes a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on their performance and provides for development of new techniques to assess student achievement. Schools will also be graded on student health, dropout and retention rates, and attendance--the first time, say backers, that such a system has been adopted statewide. Schools that meet a certain threshold will be able to waive any regulation automatically, as long as it does not affect students' health, safety, or civil rights.

The law also is the first in the country to mandate site-based management in every district and ungraded instruction through the 3rd grade in every school. It also provides for regional inservice-training centers, alternative certification, and a state professional-standards board with a teacher majority.

"There has never been anything so radical on a statewide basis,'' says James Young, superintendent of schools in Russellville, a community near the Tennessee border.

Towery, Young, and many other educators in the state say their primary concern about the law is its mandate for site-based management.

Under the new law, one school in each district will have to participate in site-based management beginning next fall. After that, the concept will be expanded to include all schools in which a two-thirds majority of the faculty votes for shared decisionmaking. The goal is to have most schools operating under the method within five years.

The law mandates that these schools establish councils composed of three teachers, two parents, and the principal. Some educators argue that mandating a rigid structure for the program appears to conflict with the effort to give schools more control.

As Young observes: "It flies in the face of the whole concept of giving local schools more freedom.''

Educators are also unclear about the role of the principal, the superintendent, and the school board in decisionmaking--all questions with which others experimenting with site-based management around the country have had to grapple.

Answering those questions, calming the fears of educators, and making them aware of the various provisions in the plan, say those who helped devise it, will be the first major task in implementation.

"The state will have to spend an important amount of time during the next year helping the instructional staff all over the state to consider all elements of the plan and to discuss it and understand it,'' says David Hornbeck, a former state superintendent in Maryland and the author of many parts of the newly adopted plan.

The creation of new assessments will largely be the responsibility of the state department of education, which at the same time will be undergoing major changes. The new law will shift the focus of the department from regulatory enforcement to technical assistance.

Putting in place such an assessment system will be a task of formidable proportions, says Jack Foster, Gov. Wilkinson's education aide. "When you are pioneers, you are not going to build the ultimate model the first time,'' he says.

State leaders may confront some skepticism in their efforts to secure broad support for the reform plan. Some educators have expressed anger about being shut out of the negotiations over the new school system.

"We don't really know if this plan is going to be realistic,'' says Iris Young, a teacher at Rockcastle County High School. "None of [the legislators] talked to any schoolteachers that I know, even though they say we are going to have a larger voice in things.''

Jim Cox, a biology teacher at the school, expresses the fear that this plan, like other reform plans in the past, will be scrapped in a few years.

Says Cox: "Too many people right now are looking at this as one more two-year or four-year administrative or legislative change that is going to go the same way every other legislative change has.''

Making the changes at the state and local levels will take time and commitment from not only educators, but also legislators, business leaders, parents, and communities as a whole, says Betty Steffy, the state department of education's deputy superintendent of instruction.

Robert Lewis, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, says the business community is willing both to pay the 1 percent corporate-incometax increase for the reforms and to continue to be aggressive in supporting education.

And most educators, though skeptical, say they are eager to become involved in the plan once they understand what their role is. Many say they have no problem with the new system of rewarding schools that improve and imposing sanctions on those that do not--provided they are given clear direction from the start.

"I don't have any problem being held accountable as long as somebody tells me exactly what I will be held accountable for,'' says Young. The English teacher says she views the creation of new performance measures, especially a writing assessment, as key to the plan.

Donald Ingwerson, superintendent of schools for Jefferson County, recognizes the challenge that lies ahead. "The biggest task will be translating the plan from policy and law to the classroom,'' he says. "But I believe it will work. We will make it work.''

Ronnie Cash, principal of Rockcastle High, agrees: "When it is handed down to us, and it says, 'This is what we are going to do,' then we will do it. And our kids will be the winners.''

--Reagan Walker, Education Week

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