Ky. Districts Seen Jumping on Reform Bandwagon

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Four months after the Kentucky legislature approved a fundamental restructuring of the state's entire educational system, the process of school reform appears to be off to a relatively smooth and steady start, according to educators and policymakers.

Even as the first signs of opposition to implementation of the landmark law begin to surface, school districts are jumping on the reform bandwagon more quickly than expected, state officials say.

Nearly 60 percent of the state's 176 districts will begin voluntary preschool programs for at-risk 4-year-olds this fall. And figures due later this month are expected to show that more districts than anticipated have raised local taxes to qualify for additional amounts of state aid authorized by the new law.

"We're enthusiastic and excited about it," said Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson, who, along with a handful of lawmakers, played a key role in enacting the proposal.

"But some of the things have made folks unhappy," he added. "Some interest groups are trying to chip away at the provisions."

Still, educators seem most concerned with finding out how the new law will work. Professional associations representing teachers, administrators, and school boards report record-setting attendance at their summer leadership meetings.

Perhaps even more importantly, a search committee this month plans to begin screening applicants for the state's first appointed education commissioner, who will preside over the actualization of reform.

"There is almost more to do than is imaginable," said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' coalition based in Lexington. "This is clearly the figuring-out and taking-stock time."

Local Tax Hikes

School officials' eagerness to qualify for increased state funds and get a head start on new programs shows that they are dedicated to seizing the momentum for reform, according to Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.

Mr. Young said the abundance of new funding for education in the bill--and the accompanying tax increases of more than $1 billion to pay for it--contrasts with voters' historical reluctance to approve statewide tax increases for education. The turnaround brought by the reform law has led many districts to boost local tax levies this summer in order to qualify for the top level of state aid.

The law sets a minimum level of local tax effort for all districts, and provides state aid to ensure that all students receive at least a basic level of school services. In addition, it allows districts to receive additional state matching funds for local tax increases up to 15 percent above the minimum level.

"We've encouraged districts to look very hard at their local revenue options under the assumption that this is the only chance they're going to get" for higher state aid, Mr. Young said.

Gordon Nichols, a spokesman for the education department, said state officials also are heartened by the local interest. "It shows they are making more of a local effort than we expected and increasing their part of the equation, so it is encouraging," he observed.

Sponsors of the law also note the lack of a groundswell of public protest against the bill's statewide tax increases. More lawmakers who had voted against the bill were defeated in the recent legislative primary than were those who had voted for it, noted Senator Michael R. Moloney, a key drafter of the new law.

Still, some observers see a potential voter backlash once higher state and local taxes start to come due.

Disticts also have been quick to volunteer for early implementation of the bill's preschool programs, which will become mandatory for districts in the 1991-92 school year.

State officials anticipate 7,400 new preschool students in 103 districts across the state this fall, according Mr. Nichols. That will more than double the current enrollment of 4-yearel10lolds and leave the state only 3,600 preschoolers shy of the total it expects for the 1991-92 school year.

Turnover, Legal Challenge

The reform fallout also can be seen among the ranks of administrators.

Nowhere are the potential changes more dramatic than in the education department, which under the new law is slated to go out of existence--along with the jobs of all its employees--at the end of the year. The new education commisioner will then be able to reconstitute the department from the ground up.

Although employees of the old department will be eligible for jobs in the new agency, there is evidence of the pressures created by the impending change. The state is conducting stress-management seminars for employees, and planned retirements are up. Some employees have requested transfers, Mr. Nichols noted, and officials are waiting to see how many staff members will seek more stable jobs in local districts.

But the turnover has yet to become a distraction in the department, Mr. Nichols argued. "Right now, I feel like most of our employees have jumped behind the reforms," he said.

Some local superintendents also are not planning to be around for the reforms. "I think it would be dishonest if you didn't say that some of them probably didn't want to implement the reforms," said Mr. Nichols. "In two or three cases I know of, they thought the new programs needed a new superintendent."

The law also is facing its first legal challenge. The Kentucky Education Association last month filed suit over the law's ban on teacher participation in local school-board elections.

But representatives of the Kentucky School Boards Association--which opposes provisions barring relatives of school employees from being elected to a board--and the Kentucky Association of School Administrators--which questions both the anti-nepotism provision and new rules regarding the demotion of principals--said they are holding off from immediate lawsuits in order to give the reforms time to take hold.

"Everyone realizes there are some gaps in the law," said Larry D. Powers, a ksba official who became superintendent of the Bourbon County district this month. "It's going to take a lot of patience on a lot of people's part to see it work. Our position is that we'd like to see the law work."

Site-Based Management

One area in which cooperation will be crucial, Mr. Powers said, will be in the implementation of site-based-management policies. Under the new law, districts must begin to create school councils--composed of the principal, three teachers, and two parents--that will have authority over a wide range of policies at each school. Some turf battles between teachers, administrators, and lawmakers already have begun as a result of site-based-management forums, he noted.

"I think the key to the whole thing can be summed up in one word, and that's trust," Mr. Powers said. "If local school boards and teachers and parents can trust each other, many of the problems people are predicting won't come true."

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