Kentucky Teacher-Quality Plan Fights for Life

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What had been touted as a bold push to raise teacher quality in Kentucky has recently turned into a last-ditch effort to salvage at least part of the plan before the state's regular legislative session wraps up this week.

Supporters of a major package of teacher-quality proposals—based on a wide-ranging plan outlined by Gov. Paul E. Patton in January—have watched in recent weeks as key provisions were altered or removed after heavy lobbying by state teachers' unions. Another blow came on Wednesday of last week, when the Senate budget committee approved a state budget with no money for most of the bill's initiatives.

While the bill's bipartisan sponsors have complained that the changes crippled the measure, critics argue that the bill as introduced would have driven teachers from the profession while failing to improve instruction.

"We saw them as needless mandates that would upset the teaching process," said Judith Gambill, the president of the Kentucky Education Association.

Fearing the demise of the entire plan, supporters late last week were hoping to resurrect parts aimed at improving teacher-recruitment efforts and teacher-preparation programs.

"The bill was so sweeping and so good that we can't help but to feel disappointed," Robert F. Sexton, the director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said last week. "But we're still miles ahead of where we were a year ago."

A nonprofit group that supports school improvement in the state, the Prichard Committee strongly backed the teacher-quality proposal as first introduced.

When Gov. Patton, a Democrat, announced the $23 million teacher-quality plan earlier this year, it was presented as the next big step in the school improvement efforts begun with the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which set up new systems of student assessment and school accountability.

The bill that grew out of the governor's proposals had several far-reaching aims, including: better alignment of Kentucky's schools of education with the expectations set for students under KERA; deepening educators' knowledge of the content they teach; and creating incentives to attract more minority teachers and more teachers in geographical areas and subjects experiencing shortages.

Union Opposition

Introduced in the House, the 105-page bill immediately ran into heavy opposition by the KEA and its largest local chapter, the Jefferson County Teachers Association. Both are affiliates of the National Education Association.

The unions' objections centered on two provisions. One would have required middle school teachers to demonstrate adequate background in the subjects they teach. The other would have created a new independent agency, the Education Professional Standards Board, with broad powers to implement policies relating to teacher quality. The unions balked at the make-up of the proposed board, which would not have included a majority of classroom teachers.

Laura Kirchner, the president of the JCTA, said that hundreds of her members would have been affected by the middle school requirements.

"If this bill had gone through, we would have had at least one-third of those teachers retire," Ms. Kirchner said. "They would have been insulted, and said 'To hell with it, I'm walking away.' And then they would have brought in more emergency-certified teachers."

Under pressure from the unions, the House stripped the bill of the middle school requirements before passing it, and changed it so that classroom teachers would constitute a majority on the proposed professional-standards board. It was the latter of the changes that most upset the bill's initial supporters.

"I was very disappointed in the reaction of the teachers' unions," said Rep. Harry Moberly, one of the bill's original sponsors. "We were trying to make an innovative, forward-thinking board that would truly improve teaching. It was not an anti-teacher bill."

But the plan didn't fare well in the Republican-controlled Senate last week, where the budget committee approved a state spending plan that did not include funding for most of measure's provisions.

"If it's a big program like this and you don't have broad backing, it's a little questionable whether you're going to throw that much money at it," said Sen. Vernie McGaha, a Republican.

By last Thursday, Mr. Moberly had pronounced the legislation "dead.'' Still, to cut his losses, the Democratic lawmaker added many of the bill's less controversial and less costly parts to separate legislation that had already passed the Senate and was pending in the House late last week.

The provisions he tried to salvage included: the recruitment efforts aimed at minorities and shortage areas; closer monitoring and evaluation by state education officials of teacher-preparation programs; and increased opportunities for teachers to get additional training, both in their subject matter and in how to teach it—although without many of the original mandates that teachers take part.

"I think we're saving some very important issues," Mr. Moberly said. "This will make major changes in teacher preparation in this state."

For Mr. Moberly's amendments to succeed, the Senate would have to vote again on the bill they're attached to, while funding for the initiatives would have to be restored in a conference committee on the state budget this week.

Vol. 19, Issue 29, Pages 22, 26

Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as Kentucky Teacher-Quality Plan Fights for Life
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