Student Achievement

Hello McFly! What Ever Happened to Kentucky’s Landmark 1990 K-12 Law?

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 02, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Say farewell to Dr. Emmett Brown, step into the State EdWatch DeLorean, and fire up the flux capacitor for this “Throwback Thursday” blog post. It’s time to go Back to the Future:

On Wednesday, when I reported that Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday announced his retirement, I noted that Holliday took over as state chief the same year that the Bluegrass State approved a major education policy overhaul through Senate Bill 1. That legislation required the state to reassess and redevelop its standards, assessments, and accountability system.

But that bill wasn’t the first time that Kentucky approved sweeping changes to its public schools through legislation.

A Slam Dunk for Education

Twenty-five years ago, the Kentucky legislature took what former Education Week reporter Reagan Walker reported what was, for many observers, “the most important action taken by the General Assembly this century” by approving the Education Reform Act of 1990, which then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, a Democrat, signed into law.

The previous year, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in the Rose v. The Council for Better Education Inc. lawsuit, brought by 66 relatively poor districts, that the state’s system of public schools was invalid because its K-12 governance and financing did not provide for an ''efficient system of common schools throughout the state” as the Kentucky Constitution required. The court ordered state lawmakers to fix it.

The Education Reform Act was the legislators’ response to the court the next year, and as you can tell from Walker’s characterization, legislators believed it would bring Kentucky to the top of the heap when it came to public school performance.

“For once, we will be able to point to something other than a basketball team,” said Sen. Nelson Allen, the head of the Kentucky Senate education committee at the time, “and say with pride that we are the first in the nation.” (The University of Kentucky, of course, is still famous for having a pretty good basketball team.)

Money, Performance, and Nepotism

Here are a few highlights of what that new law, often abbreviated as KERA, did:

• It established a new funding system designed to close the financial gap between wealthier and poorer districts. The bill required $1.3 billion in new taxes for education, including increases in the sales and corporate income taxes. The KERA also guaranteed a minimum level of state aid to districts, and directed extra state funding to students living in poverty, as well as for districts’ transportation costs and for “exceptional” children. And districts were required to maintain a new minimum taxation effort of at least 30 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

• The KERA instituted both sanctions and rewards for schools based on their students’ achievement levels. And it required schools to be graded on factors including attendance rates and student health.

• It required students to be judged on learning standards based on six broad goals for students. These included being able to use basic communication and math skills in everyday situations, and to “develop their abilities to become self-sufficient individuals.”

• In an effort to prevent corruption in local public schools, the new law barred school board members and administrators from hiring relatives to work in schools in their jurisdiction, and also prevented them from promoting relatives already working in local schools. And in a provision that angered the state teachers’ union, the KERA also prohibited school employees from campaiging for candidates for local school boards.

• The law also instituted “site-based management” for schools, beginning with one school in each district—by 1996, all schools would be required to use the practice. This requirement set up school councils consisting of at least three parents, two teachers, and a school administrator each, and gave the councils a relatively large amount of power over school policy. This was also a controversial provision of the law, and Kentucky’s requirement of such councils was highlighted in a 1995 Educational Leadership study.

The Legacy of KERA

Early returns on the KERA were mixed. A 1997 study from the University of Kentucky by William Hoyt noted that since KERA’s passage, college dropout rates in the state had actually gone up, the state’s assessment system had been plagued by charges of fraud, and the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress didn’t seem to have been helped by the law.

“While the lack of any measurable increase in achievement or performance since KERA might appear discouraging, it should not be surprising,” Hoyt wrote. “Even if the reforms and spending from KERA will lead to better schooling and performance by students, these changes may take a considerable amount of time.”

In 2001, the “Quality Counts” report from Education Week gave Kentucky a grade of A- for its standards and accountability system, but a B for the adequacy of its resources, and just a C+ for how equitably those resources were distributed.

In 2009, 20 years after the Rose ruling, Gov. Steve Beshear spoke about the case at a University of Kentucky College of Education symposium, telling the crowd, “It really is difficult to overstate the impact of school reform in Kentucky as it happened back in ’89 and ‘90, and since that time.”

Rose at 20: Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear from UK College of Education on Vimeo.

“We created from scratch basically a new school system in this state,” Beshear said.

Beshear also said that in every subsequent legislative session since KERA was adopted, the legislature had altered its impact in some way, and mostly in good ways. But the governor also stressed that 20 years later, it was time “to re-energize our schools” again, and highlighted his “Transforming Education in Kentucky” initiative that was based on ... you guessed it, the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 2009 several months before.

Among the policies Beshear said would help the state continue to build on KERA were the Common Core State Standards, which Kentucky became the first state to officially adopt in 2010, and the federal Race to the Top grant program, which Kentucky ultimately didn’t win.

One more thing: the Rose case continues to impact the education policy world today, and not just in Kentucky. Last year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled portions of that state’s school finance system to be unconstitutional in the Gannon v. Kansas case, and directed a lower-court panel to assess whether K-12 spending by the state was inadequate. The state Supreme Court ordered that panel to judge the adequacy of Kansas spending on public schools using the legal standard set out in the Rose ruling.

Photo: Former Kentucky Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, right, waves to crowds lining Capitol Avenue in Frankfort, Ky., during his inaugural parade in 1987. Wilkinson is accompanied by his wife Martha and oldest son Glenn. Wilkinson signed the Education Reform Act of 1990 into law. Ed Reinke/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.