Reform Law Meets Rear-Guard Reaction In Eastern Kentucky

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SALYERSVILLE, KY.--When Kentucky lawmakers designed their landmark education-reform law in 1990, their most controversial provisions were meant to erase chronic political influence and patronage.

The anti-nepotism section of the law clearly spells out that spouses, parents, children, and close cousins are not allowed to hire one another for school jobs or to work together as administrators.

But in tackling the stubbornly independent spirit of this close-knit, insular area, legislators forgot about Castle Whitaker.

Mr. Whitaker, a veteran educator here and part of one of the state's best-known local education dynasties, was narrowly elected last month to the Magoffin County school board after pointing out to state officials that the law does not specifically disallow election of a superintendent's uncle, which he is to the local schools chief, Carter Whitaker.

Castle Whitaker's success in exploiting the legislature's unwitting avuncular exemption has been seen in the state either as the last hurrah for the old-time politics targeted by the reform act or as one of the first chinks in yet another doomed plan forced on these poor Appalachian counties in the name of progress.

In several counties near here, the clash between state and local political forces over school-governance reform has recently become more heated. Although Castle Whitaker, who declined to be interviewed for this story, can claim a personal victory, the battle elsewhere goes on and has proven bruising to both sides.

As conflicts in the courts and the legislature intensify, impatience on both sides is threatening to break up the broad consensus that swept the reform measure into law. Reform activists want stronger state action and greater support, while opponents complain that state officials have become political bullies trampling on the deeply ingrained tradition of local school control.

Jobs, Power, and Money

A trip along the winding mountain roads east of Salyersville provides a vivid picture of the economic and social forces at work behind the battle over the schools.

In the occasional clearings among the ancient mountains, families have claimed level plots by anchoring trailers, raising garages and sheds, building modest houses, grazing goats and cattle, and fencing off small cemeteries.

The residential lots usually sit alone, surrounded by walls of rock and trees that permit little space for the sky.

The natural and man-made features alike testify to a long-established way of life in the coal-fields region, which stretches to the Virginia and Tennessee borders. Appalachian experts describe a desperate economy where steady jobs are hard to find, family ties are precious, and outsiders are welcomed as visitors but viewed warily as settlers.

Analysts say the forces have for decades shifted the focus of school administrators away from student achievement to a preoccupation with awarding jobs, doling out contracts, and maintaining political power.

In response to abuses in eastern Kentucky and throughout the state, lawmakers in 1990 moved to reduce the hiring authority of board members and administrators, force competitive bidding and other common business practices, and remove corrupt administrators.

While many have welcomed the new system, in recent months the state has found itself in a contest of political hardball against local officials determined to protect both their personal prerogatives and their regional independence.

"This is the acid test,'' said John B. Stephenson, the president of Berea College and an expert on Appalachian culture.

"School systems have become the engine of countywide political machines that are relatively stable and relatively impenetrable, but a lot of these folks will be passed by to the extent that these reforms are successful,'' Mr. Stephenson said. "It's pretty easy to see why there is a ructious situation in certain places.''

The resistance, which in some places has spread from disenchanted administrators to parents and others, has left top reformers feeling besieged and frustrated.

"There are some people who don't believe the state can enforce the law in their area, and they don't want it to,'' explained Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group. "In some places the engine that drives the civic process is busted--it has thrown a rod--and we may have to look again at how to reinvent it.''

'Mandates and Reactions'

At Prestonsburg, the seat of Floyd County and the next major crossroads east of Salyersville, John David Caudill offered a brief lesson in survival and local politics.

"What you've got is confrontation from both sides and no cooperation. It's all mandates and reactions,'' the lawyer said. "If you put me back in a corner, I'm going to bite you.''

Mr. Caudill has been a visible force among the school-reform critics, having represented a principal who was removed by the state board of education and a school board member charged with improperly suggesting a hiring during a meeting. He faults the state's tactics more than the substance of the changes it has enacted.

"I'm not here to defend our board or school system; we've got all kinds of problems,'' he said. "But I think the state needs to change its attitude about how it conducts its investigations and change the way it comes at us. There are some people that deserve credit here.''

Mr. Caudill's appeal of the principal's removal is intended to force the state to reconsider the role of the office of education accountability, which was established by the 1990 law as the watchdog of reform.

Mr. Caudill and others charge that while the office has the power to effectively prosecute local school officials before the state board, it does not abide by common legal procedures needed to insure a competent defense.

Noting that an earlier investigation ousted the district's superintendent, critics also contend that the state has come down too hard on local leaders.

At the same time, some people in the district's central office have taken steps to sour teachers and citizens on the intent of the school reforms. An anonymous letter mailed from the district's headquarters and traced back to administrators there urges an all-out fight against the law's changes.

The six-page letter points to earlier reforms, such as educational television, open classrooms, standardized testing, and new teaching techniques. "Our heroes ... managed to overcome this myriad of threats to their classroom and school operation and independence,'' it says.

The letter implores educators who were "bought'' by pay raises in the first two years of the reform program to resist changes.

"We must join together to reclaim our classrooms, our schools, and our kids' education from the San Diego megalomaniacs, the out-of-state philosophers, and the New Hampshire test-makers,'' the writers urge.

Reform critics have been particularly resentful of the role of Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen, who came from the San Diego schools to become the state's first appointed schools chief.

Growing Grassroots Frustration

Local observers and state officials agree that scrutiny of the reform law--which also mandates governance by school councils, ungraded primary programs, expanded preschool and after-school programs, new assessments, and the increased use of technology--is growing outside of Floyd County as well.

While the law's substantial increase in education funding initially won it acceptance, the recent state administrative crackdown and the autonomous role played by Mr. Boysen have begun to frustrate school leaders. Evidence is mounting that resentment is also growing at the grassroots.

In Harlan County, where the Appalachian Mountains rise to their highest reaches, the state has taken its strongest action to date.

After targeting the entire school board and superintendent, the state succeeded in ousting three of the five board members. One was cleared and another resigned, as did the superintendent.

Since then, the state has issued a lengthy improvement plan calling for a host of changes in the district, whose policies it labeled "outdated, incomplete, and inadequate.''

'They Are Our Crooks'

Last month, about 100 people gathered at Cawood High School to applaud speakers demanding that the state "get out.''

The demonstration frustrated Rep. Roger Noe, a Harlan County resident who as chairman of the House Education Committee was one of the architects of the reform law. Mr. Noe was defeated for re-election this year in part because of the board upheaval.

"What we had was a rally against good government and standard business practices,'' Mr. Noe said. "Many people around here believe that we have crooks, but they are our crooks and we should deal with them with our own measures.''

Harlan County residents apparently are still undecided on whether the ouster of the board members was justified. A local judge reinstated the three members, although that move was blocked by another court and is due to be reviewed by the state supreme court this month.

Ronnie G. Ball, one of the ousted board members, was narrowly re-elected last month in a four-person race, while another ousted board member was easily defeated.

Mr. Ball declined an interview, citing his ongoing court case. But, in written responses for a pre-election story in the Harlan Daily Enterprise, he complained that the state had stepped in despite improvements under way in the district.

"My top priority is to see the control of our schools returned to the local people who care about them,'' Mr. Ball wrote. "The way I see it, the ïŸåŸáŸ and Boysen's office chose Harlan County to make an example of for all the state to see.''

Some analysts contend that the state has itself stirred up some of the opposition by charging ahead without regard for local considerations and traditions.

State Errors Seen

The state moved quickly into Harlan County in its attempt to remove the board and superintendent, who resigned only to be appointed to an advisory post by his temporary replacement. The state then acted to foil that effort.

In Floyd County, where a local committee was appointed to screen applicants for the superintendent's post, Mr. Boysen effectively eliminated all of the finalists, including one local candidate. That left only a school administrator from central Kentucky who had served on an advisory panel with the commissioner.

"If that's not political, what the hell is political?'' Mr. Caudill asked.

Most observers agree that state officials erred badly in interceding in the Floyd County search and, in many ways, started the avalanche of open hostility in the Appalachian counties. But they add that the state has had a difficult task in being forceful enough to bring about real change without unnecessarily antagonizing local officials and residents.

Beyond the dramas that have unfolded in Harlan and Floyd counties, observers say, efforts to thwart the reform law are rampant in the region.

Fragile Balancing Act

Moreover, the pressure to move strongly to clean up poorly managed Kentucky districts comes not only from lawmakers and educators from elsewhere in the state, but also from the 1989 supreme court ruling that struck down the state's entire education system and led to the reform law.

"The perception was that a lot of money was being wasted in districts that were highly political and badly managed,'' said Mr. Sexton of the Prichard Committee. "The dilemma is that you get sucked into a fight over governance issues at the local level, and that lessens the energy and time you have to deal with the rest of the reforms and weakens your political base.''

Mr. Boysen acknowledges the fragile balancing act. As a result of some of the uproar from eastern Kentucky, the state has looked again at its management-assistance program, which was designed to move into troubled districts.

Political considerations make it more important that the program seek to guide and support improvement efforts at the local level, Mr. Boysen said, rather than imposing them from outside.

"The criticism goes with the territory, because when one gets assertive, the people who are getting squeezed start to fight back,'' Mr. Boysen said. "What I've been surprised with is how much good stuff is going on even though there is corruption and incompetence at the top. There are some teachers out there doing great work, and we're trying to get them all of the policy support and resources they need.''

'A Long Process'

Local residents who have been involved with education say the state is sorely out of touch when it comes to understanding the local system and how best to change it.

The Rev. Timothy D. Jessen has been waiting for 12 years for help from officials in Frankfort, the state capital. As chairman of the Floyd County Education Forum, the Presbyterian pastor is a veteran of battles with the school bureaucracy.

But, Mr. Jessen lamented, "I don't think they have a ghost of an idea of what it's like here, and that's where the state has made its errors.''

"Right now we're experiencing a number of setbacks,'' he added. "It's not going to wipe out the reform act, but if citizens don't fight back, the legislature may become inclined to say that the people don't support this.''

Others emphasize the obstacles posed by the deep web of self-interests within the school administration, or portray the current backlash as a natural part of the reform program. But almost everyone agrees that the state has miscalculated the forces at work here.

"The state should have gone in and built upon what had already taken place,'' said Tom Gish, the publisher of The Mountain Eagle newspaper in Letcher County for 35 years and a first-term member of the state school board. "Instead, it has wound up almost making the reform people its enemies.''

Mr. Gish fired off a heated letter to Mr. Boysen for his part in the Floyd County superintendent search. While describing Mr. Boysen's performance as improving, he predicted that recovery will be "a long process.''

Stronger State Role Urged

Like others who have followed the school-reform effort, Mr. Gish said that a stronger state presence may be needed.

"The state is putting money into the hands of people of dubious ability who have historically produced an educational product that is second rate,'' he explained. "There is nothing to indicate that if you give them money and leave them alone, anything will be any different except that they will be spending more money.''

"Sure the state's hand is heavy at times,'' he continued, "but I think it has been established that the state's hand needs to be heavy and may indeed be too light.''

During the 1990 debate over the reform law, many lawmakers viewed Representative Noe as an extremist when he called for dismantling local school boards. In retrospect, though, many on the front lines of the reform battles in eastern Kentucky say they now view his position with newfound respect.

Mr. Noe predicted that the reform law will work through its current difficulties, despite state officials' lack of understanding.

"Many people had no idea how deep the network was and how entrenched the economic and social forces of the school system were. They didn't see that they were involved in a major social change, and they don't realize it today,'' Mr. Noe said. "A level of education has to occur here before the people who are screaming and hollering and raising hell will appreciate this.''

"It is going according to plan, but it ought not to have to be this way,'' he said. "I am hoping that the remaining members of the legislature will have enough grit to get through this period.''

'Not the Law's Fault'

Questions about lawmakers' resolve to back the reforms these days call to mind Rep. Gregory D. Stumbo, a Floyd County lawyer who serves as the leader of the Democratic majority in the House. Although he was an important backer of the reform law, Mr. Stumbo has become increasingly critical as the local struggle has grown.

Given Mr. Noe's fate, observers suggest that Mr. Stumbo is under pressure to express the frustrations of Floyd County voters.

Far from retreating, though, Mr. Stumbo continues to proclaim firm support for the law, if not Mr. Boysen's execution of it.

Mr. Stumbo said his frustrations have resulted both from the continued publicity about his district and from concerns about Mr. Boysen's performance in such areas as the restructuring of the state education department and the implementation of technology programs.

"I'm maybe more supportive of the reform law now than I ever was,'' Mr. Stumbo said. "What I'm upset about is accepting mediocrity. People are criticizing the law when it isn't the law's fault.''

To that end, Mr. Stumbo was a leading force behind last week's announcement of a task force that will tour the state to discuss implementation of the law. In some quarters, the panel is seen as an effort by lawmakers to take more control of the pace and direction of reforms.

"People in Kentucky want a better education system, and my district wants better schools. What people don't want is to hear that all this is wrong and you all are crooks,'' Mr. Stumbo said. "For years we governed by crisis, and the reform act was designed to alleviate that. The significant part of the law is that we have a game plan now and we're not going to drop it.''

"In fact, things on the whole are improving in central Appalachia,'' said Ron D. Eller, the director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky. "While there is still a strong resistance to change, we are seeing communities where the old structures of power are breaking down.''

"There are very, very strong pockets of resistance, but for each of those there are also places where the reform law is working very well,'' Mr. Eller added.

"We've come right down to the life-and-death struggle with those who have been in power,'' said Mr. Jessen, the Floyd County minister.

"Some big strides have been made,'' he added. "In 1990 we thought we were on the edge of the promised land, but now we may be back in the wilderness and in for a protracted period of strife.''

Vol. 12, Issue 14

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