Kentucky Officials Begin Laying Plans To Rebuild System

By Reagan Walker — June 21, 1989 8 min read

Kentucky lawmakers, charged by the state supreme court with redesigning “the whole gamut” of their school system, took the first step last week by establishing a commission of legislative leaders that will eventually devise the new system.

While legislators said they welcomed the opportunity to refashion the system, which was declared unconstitutional in sweeping terms by the high court June 8, some said they felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.

“I guess I feel a whole lot like the dog that finally caught the car he had been chasing,” said Michael R. Moloney, chairman of the Senate appropriations and revenue committee. “Now that I’ve caught it, what do I do with it?”

Mr. Moloney is one of 10 legislative leaders named to the commission, which will also include representatives from Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson’s office yet to be appointed. The commission will not include John Brock, the state superintendent.

Mr. Moloney and another commission member, Roger Noe, said every part of the system will be up for review, from locally elected school boards to the state education department.

“We will all bring our personal philosophies and personal agendas to the table, but nothing is sacred,” said Mr. Noe, chairman of the House education committee.

Educators and others across the state last week said they reacted to the ruling with a mixture of elation and a little apprehension.

“It’s the most important ruling on education in our lifetimes,” said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens’ advocacy group. “It gives us a chance to build a system that works.”

“The court has indicated that everything is up for discussion,” said David Allen, president of the Kentucky Education Association. “That will make some a little nervous, excited, and anxious. But the opportunity far outweighs the risk.”

Expressing “guarded optimism,” Robert Elliston, director of legislative research for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber sees “a lot of potential, given the breadth of the ruling.”

The organization favors “an increase in broad-based revenue measures,” Mr. Elliston said. “We believe there is an absolutely critical need to reform. We need a skilled workforce. The business community has always been willing to step up to the table on an equal basis in school-funding issues.”

Donald Ingwerson, superintendent of the Jefferson County school district that includes Louisville, said the days following the ruling have been “like riding a roller coaster.”

“We are at the point where we need to draw back and analyze where we are and how our district will be affected by this,” said Mr. Ingwerson, whose district was not among the 66 property-poor districts that brought the finance suit against the state. “We are anxious to see this committee formed and begin to get a feel for what line of action the legislators are going to take.”

Local school officials said they did not expect to feel the direct effects of the ruling for at least another year. But the ruling may restrain some districts from taking up new tax referenda or construction projects until the shape of the new system is revealed, the officials added.

The supreme court held in Rose v. The Council for Better Education Inc. that not only the school-finance methods but all “parts and parcels” of Kentucky’s education system failed to meet the state constitutional mandate for an “efficient system of common schools.” (See Education Week, June 14, 1989.)

The court held, not that any single law was unconstitutional, but that the “statutory system as a whole” was flawed.

The ruling also said that if the state decides to continue the practice of funding local districts through property taxes, the taxes must be uniform and property must be assessed at 100 percent of its value.

The ruling calls for the review of every law and regulation affecting education, including laws creating local school districts, school boards, the state education department, and laws governing teacher certification and school construction.

It places the sole responsibility for assuring that the state has a system that provides an “equal opportunity for an adequate education” squarely on the General Assembly.

One of the first visible outcomes of the ruling has been a sign of a new working relationship between Governor Wilkinson and lawmakers, who have been wrangling over school reform for the past year.

In a symbolic gesture of unity, Governor Wilkinson, the top two legislative leaders, and Mr. Brock held a joint news conference to respond to the decision.

And Mr. Wilkinson, who pledged not to raise taxes during his 1986 campaign, said that once a new system was devised he would “support the necessary revenue measures to pay for it.”

“I think the legislative leaders and the Governor agreed that it is time to realign the agenda, since the issue is no longer how to improve parts of the system, but the whole thing,” said Jack Foster, Mr. Wilkinson’s secretary of education.

“If the news conference is any indication, then there is, at least, a very different relationship than what we have seen over the last few months,” said Mr. Allen of the teachers’ union.

Since the legislature refused to pass the Governor’s restructuring plan in the last session, Mr. Wilkinson has said he would call a special session to deal with reform issues.

The Governor’s office last weekel15lwould not comment on the special session, but legislative leaders said it is unlikely one will be called now. The next regular session is January 1990.

Mr. Brock said the improved relations between the legislature and the Governor mark a hopeful sign that action will be taken.

Saying he had no problem with not being a part of the special commission, Mr. Brock added that he would remain interested and involved.

Mr. Foster said that the commission would seek Mr. Brock’s counsel in any event. “John’s in an awkward position,” he said. “The court struck down everything underneath him, but he certainly has to be a participant in this as an adviser.”

“There is one thing that should not be brought to the table--timidity,” Mr. Moloney said of the commission’s challenge. He and others contended that the legislature must now rise above the regional conflicts and the politics that have bogged down the school-reform debate in the past.

“One fear many have is that this process won’t be done in a nonpolitical way and that there won’t be substantive change,” said Ken Johnstone, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.

Mr. Noe and other legislative leaders who will sit on the committee said they will solicit the advice of national experts in education as well as the ideas of all education interests in the state. “But, ultimately, the tough decisions will be ours to make,” Mr. Noe said.

Among them will be such issues as whether to merge districts or abolish locally elected school boards.

“The first question we are going to have to answer is, do we want one school district in the state or a number,” said Mr. Moloney. “And if we want a number, then do we want districts based on populations or geographical boundaries.”

“These questions will be tougher than decisions on raising taxes,” Mr. Moloney said. “But we can make some progress and show that we are going to break up these little fiefdoms being run, sometimes, for the sole benefit of the people running them.”

Some local school officials were quick to voice opinions on the various ideas being floated, but others said they were taking a wait-and-see attitude.

To the suggestion that local school boards might be abolished, Dan Thomas, a board member in Hopkinsville, responded: “That would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. You would be taking away local control and parental choice.”

Local officials raised questions about the idea of merging districts, with many focusing on Kentucky’s independent school districts. Of the state’s 177 school districts, 120 are county districts and 57 are city or independent districts.

By merging independent districts with larger county school systems, some argued, duplication could be reduced and resources saved. But officials in independent districts countered that they provide high-quality education and should not be tampered with.

Local officials were in agreement, however, that no matter what kind of system is designed, more revenue is needed.

“I don’t think the court was endorsing a Robin Hood plan of taking from the richer districts and giving to the poor,” said Mr. Ingwerson. He said that no district in Kentucky currently matches the national average expenditure per pupil.

Mr. Moloney estimated that up to $400 million in additional funds are needed for the education system alone. “And we have other needs that push our overall revenue-increase needs up to $700 million or more,” he said.

Legislators have suggested that a sales-tax increase, adopting the federal income-tax code, and overhauling the state-income-tax system may be needed to underwrite the educational overhaul.

State leaders said they expected to begin bringing in experts and holding hearings right away.

Theoretically, their task should be completed by next April 15--the scheduled end of the regular session. The court declined to make its ruling final until that time.

John A. Rose, president pro tempore of the Senate and defendant in the case, said last week that he might ask the court for some clarifications and perhaps an extension.

One legislator suggested that it may be more politically appealing not to complete the redesign plan until after the primary elections next May, in which half the Senate and all of the House will be up for reelection.

Mr. Moloney said that inaction on the part of the legislature is the ultimate weapon available, but “like the atomic bomb, one we can’t afford to use.” If the legislature fails to act, he said, “then our education system simply ceases to exist on April 15, 1990.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as Kentucky Officials Begin Laying Plans To Rebuild System