Kentucky Schools Poised for Major Shake-Up

Charters, changes to K-12 law coming
By Denisa R. Superville & Daarel Burnette II — March 17, 2017 | Updated: March 22, 2017 | Corrected: March 18, 2017 10 min read
Kentucky state Sen. David Givens, a Republican, argues in favor of a bill allowing charter schools last week at the state capitol in Frankfort. Some Kentucky lawmakers have tried for years to pass a charter school law.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kentucky began and then got rid of a series of standardized tests and accountability systems in the years following the federal Race to the Top competition.

After years of ill-fated attempts, Kentucky is on a sure-footed path to becoming the 44th state to allow charter schools, one of two sweeping measures the legislature passed this session that promises to reshape the state’s K-12 education system.

Kentucky’s new majority of Republican lawmakers—supported by a GOP governor—approved legislation to allow charter schools, start a process that could change or eventually repeal the Common Core State Standards, and strike at the core of the state’s unusual governance of schools. (Update: Kentucky Governor Signs Charter Schools Bill )

Strongly backed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin—who took the unusual step of testifying before education committees in the House and Senate—the charter legislation empowers local school boards and mayors to authorize charter schools. The law sets no limit on the number of charters that can open.

The sweeping overhaul of the state’s central K-12 education law—in place since 1990 and seen for years as a model for raising student achievement on a broad scale—would bring about major changes to who controls decisionmaking over academic standards, curricula, and hiring at the school level.

But Republicans failed to muster enough support to dismantle long-standing integration efforts in the state’s largest school system—the Jefferson County district, which includes the city of Louisville.

Overall, the coming changes to Kentucky’s K-12 landscape are “hopeful” and potentially put the state on track to take its “next giant leap on behalf of student achievement,” if state officials provide adequate oversight and fiscal support, said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonpartisan education think tank in the state.

Timeline: Kentucky K-12 Highlights

The Bluegrass State has been in the national spotlight for four decades of developments in the public education arena, from desegregation efforts to bellwether K-12 overhaul efforts.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals orders the mostly black Louisville district and mostly white Jefferson County school system to desegregate. A plan for merging the two systems is adopted and implemented, largely through busing.

Sept. 1975
Police link arms to stop an anti-busing march in downtown Louisville. Some arrests were made after demonstrators skirmished with police on the first day of court-ordered busing in the area.

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence forms as a private, nonprofit advocacy group focusing on all levels of public education.

The Kentucky Supreme Court rules the state’s public school system unconstitutional and orders the legislature to “re-create and re-establish” it.

Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) is enacted.

The Kentucky Association of School Councils formed to promote shared decisionmaking at the school level.

The Jefferson County district adopts voluntary desegregation plan after the federal court ends its court-ordered desegregation plan.

Dec. 2006
Demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court in Washington during arguments in a case brought by parents in Louisville and Seattle who challenged the two districts’ race-based school integration efforts.

The U.S. Supreme Court issues a 5-4 ruling that race-based student-assignment plans in Jefferson County and the Seattle school district violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Jefferson County crafts a new student-assignment plan that uses a number of factors to achieve integrated schools.

Lawmakers overhaul the state’s K-12 testing system with an eye toward alignment with new college- and career-ready standards.

Kentucky becomes the first in the nation to adopt the Common Core State Standards.

Nov. 2015
Matt Bevin, a Republican opposed to the state’s use of the common core, is elected governor, replacing the outgoing Democratic incumbent.

Nov. 2016
Republicans win control of the Kentucky House of Representatives, consolidating GOP control of the legislature.

Jan. 2017
A bill is introduced to overhaul Senate Bill 1, the key legislation that created KERA.

SOURCE: Education Week

While the Kentucky Education Reform Act has been the state’s main vehicle for increasing education spending, empowering parents to participate in school-level decisionmaking, and raising student achievement for more than two decades, state education officials now say the law has run its course.

The gains it helped bring about for disadvantaged students have stalled in recent years, especially for the state’s black and Latino children, officials say, and the state’s lawmakers saw the federal Every Student Succeeds Act as an opportunity to chart a new path.

“This will be our next shot in the arm,” Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky’s education commissioner, said of the legislation known as SB 1, which was awaiting the senate president’s signature on Friday.

Expected to be signed by Bevin, the bill drew widespread support, including from the state’s teachers’ union, the superintendents association, and conservative and rural legislators.

But the plan was strongly opposed by the state’s most grassroots level of local control: the thousands of parents, teachers, and principals who, under the 1990 act, won authority to hire principals, select curriculum, set a school’s budget, and experiment with new teaching methods. While parents elsewhere may envy such local input, superintendents and state officials say it’s become burdensome.

“My biggest fear with this bill is we’re going to see a reduction in true local decisionmaking,” said Lynne Slone, a lobbyist and lawyer for the Kentucky Association of School Councils, prior to the bill’s final passage.

The Prichard Committee praised most of SB 1, but said the legislature should go further and increase funding to help public schools cope with an ongoing fiscal crisis, review the state’s 27-year-old funding formula, and set new and ambitious academic goals.

Charter Measure Prevails

While charter school bills had been proposed in Kentucky before, passage seemed a given this year after Republicans took control of the legislature last fall, on the heels of Gov. Bevin’s victory in 2015.

Republican supporters said with Kentucky’s late entry into the charter game, the state has the advantage of emulating successes and avoiding mistakes made by those that were earlier adopters

State Sen. Mike Wilson, the chairman of the Senate’s education committee, said pastors in the Louisville and Lexington black communities have “begged” the legislature for years to allow charter schools.

“I think that charter schools show that they have the most success in urban areas where you have kids in poverty, and that’s where we have some of the biggest achievement gaps,” Wilson said ahead of the measure’s full passage.

While Democrats in many states embrace charter schools, the Kentucky bill passed largely along party lines. Republican proponents argued that charter schools will provide more schooling options for families and students, particularly students who are at risk of academic failure.

Democrats in the legislature argued that charters will divert already scarce resources from traditional public schools.

The bill allows parents, teachers, and nonprofits to apply to open charter schools, and for-profit companies would be allowed to run charters under contracts with those entities that receive charter approval.

Under the legislation, individual local school boards or a collective of local school boards can be charter authorizers. Mayors could also potentially authorize charters.

Charters would only be allowed to hire teachers who are state-certified, a rule that some charter supporters said stifles flexibility that the schools need to innovate. The bill explicitly bans the opening of virtual charter schools, which have a spotty track record in many other states.

The Jefferson County school board tried to influence its final form, succeeding in some cases.

Among the provisions it sought: the ban on virtual charters, local school boards as sole authorizers, hiring of certified teachers, and no for-profit charter operators.

Chris Brady, the chairman of the Jefferson County board, said charters are not the best way to improve the state’s education system on a broad scale. Stability in the system as well as increased financial support for traditional public schools would be more effective, he said.

“Charter schools seem to be a silver bullet for some,” he said. “They look at public school results without looking at poverty levels and how persistent and endemic it is.”

Randy Poe, the superintendent of the 21,000-student Boone County district in Florence, Ky., said he’s not categorically opposed to charters.

“Given the right situation, charter schools can be an effective tool,” Poe said. “What I would prefer is that the state would release us from the rules and regulations they are willing to give charter schools to begin with, without me having to create a dual, parallel system.”

Louisville in Crosshairs

At the top of the Republicans’ agenda early this session was a so-called “neighborhood schools” bill that would have made districts give students preference to attend the school nearest their home. Many viewed the measure as a direct attack on Jefferson County’s long-running initiative to keep its schools racially and socioeconomically balanced.

Many parents and residents say the district’s complex school-assignment process that relies heavily on busing students to schools far beyond their neighborhoods has led to academic improvements, especially for black students on the city’s impoverished west side.

Every school board candidate who has run on a platform opposing the school assignment plan in recent years has lost, Brady said.

But some conservative lawmakers said the district’s integration efforts have run their course, scrambled community cohesion, and yielded lackluster academic results.

Still, the measure failed to gain traction as the focus on passing a charter school measure took precedence.

But Jefferson County still faces potential intervention from state officials. Pruitt, the state education commissioner, earlier this year launched an audit of the district for what he described as concerns over student safety, poor culture and communication. The audit could potentially lead to a state takeover of the district.

Changes to Core K-12 Law

In 1990, in response to a damning state supreme court decision that deemed its schools unconstitutional, Kentucky’s general assembly, then controlled by Democrats, enacted a series of academic goals that led to a radical overhaul of the financing and delivery of its K-12 services.

Over the next decade, the state increased by more than $1 billion its spending on public education, capped local spending, and targeted millions more dollars toward poor students. The state also used the funding formula to introduce a standards- and performance-based model that provided bonuses to teachers and schools for test gains.

To limit the influence of politics on K-12 policy, lawmakers bolstered the powers of the state’s commissioner of education and set up school-based decisionmaking councils made up of parents, teachers and principals. The councils can hire principals, choose curriculum, and establish budgets for schools.

In education circles, that overhaul cast Kentucky as a bellwether state for school reform. Its testing, teacher bonuses, and school funding model were replicated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But inside the state, the law was controversial, and Republicans over the years disputed the state’s touted academic gains and questioned the program’s monetary value.

Kentucky again became a frontrunner on the national K-12 scene when it became the first state to adopt the common core in 2010, spurred in part by the federal Race to the Top grant competition issued by the Obama administration. Over the next several years, the state made a variety of changes to its accountability system and tried to make changes to its statewide standardized testing. Teachers and parents became agitated over the use of the common core, which also animated the state’s cantankerous tea party activists, who complained about federal intrusion.

Bevin successfully ran in 2015 on a platform to slash away at state government and to abolish the state’s common standards, which he said on a radio show were a liberal conspiracy to “foist down the throats of our young people” the theory that Republicans hate poor people.

Republicans across the nation this year have fawned over Kentucky’s ability to pass in quick succession a series of staple GOP legislation. Just two weeks into this year’s session, Bevin signed legislation making Kentucky a right-to-work state, a move that could damage the state’s teachers’ union.

Diminished Local Control?

Under SB 1, the state education agency will be tasked with creating an accountability system that places schools unable to close achievement gaps fast enough in a “targeted assistance and support” category. Falling into that category will require school-based councils to get approval for school improvement plans from their local school board. The councils could also potentially lose their authority to choose principals..

More than 1,000 of the state’s 1,200 schools will ultimately fall into this category, effectively dismantling the local councils’ powers, according to the Kentucky Association of School Councils. (A state education department spokeswoman said it’s too early to predict the effects of the state’s accountability system.)

“This is a very complex issue, and all of the school councils are hard at work on this now,” Slone, of the association, said of the state’s achievement gap. “Absolutely, it needs to be worked on. But getting rid of councils is not going to do it.”

The state’s superintendents association and the state schools chief said the councils have, in many instances, become dysfunctional. Rather than acting on research, the councils oftentimes act based on gut, Pruitt said.

David Karem, who retired last year after 40 years serving in the legislature and on the state school board, has urged lawmakers to hold true to their constitutional and financial obligations toward the state’s public schools.

“I think all of us who were involved with KERA understood that legislation is a living entity and that as years go on, you have to look at the things that are working, and support and bolster those things, and for the things that need fixing and tweaking, you need to tweak them,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2017 edition of Education Week as Kentucky’s Schools Are Poised for a Massive Shake-Up


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