A dozen years ago, Kentucky overhauled its public schools under court order and enacted reforms that have been touted as a national model. Yet, education problems persist, and many education leaders in the Bluegrass State worry that budget woes endanger the momentum.
The Kentucky Supreme Court's 1989 Rose v. Council for Better Education ruling ordered the Legislature to provide each child "an adequate education" and to fix spending disparities in the 176 districts.
The court identified seven goals that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a New York-based education advocacy group, calls "a touchstone for other courts deciding similar cases ever since."
These goals were cited by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Collins Kilgore in his May 2001 ruling that Arkansas' schools are inadequate and inequitably funded, a ruling largely upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court last November.
The goals aim at:
Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization.
Sufficient knowledge of economic, social and political systems to enable students to make informed decisions.
Sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable students to understand issues that affect their community, state and nation.
Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of students' mental and physical wellness.
Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable students to appreciate their cultural and historical heritage.
Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in academic or vocational fields to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently.
Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable students to compete favorably with counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.
The Kentucky case culminated in the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.
It revamped the state's method of funding education. It capped the amount of local revenue used to supplement state funding. It raised taxes. And it instituted performance-based accountability measures.
In Kentucky, which has about 200,000 more students but 134 fewer school districts than Arkansas, consolidation of districts wasn't involved.
The state generated new revenue of $ 1.3 billion annually by raising the sales tax by 1 percent and not allowing individuals or corporations to deduct federal income taxes paid in computing their state income taxes.
What did the Kentucky Education Reform Act do?
Individual schools are financially rewarded for student performance improvements, with about $ 22 million of incentive funding distributed annually. "Kentucky was the first state in which funding was tied to student performance," said John Myers, a partner in the Denver-based education consulting firm of Augenblick & Myers.
Detailed performance goals were set for specific grades in specific subjects, with performance measured annually and students tested every two years in reading, writing and science.
Myers and Molly Hunter, director of legal research for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said that since the implementation of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, students have improved scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The national, standardized test measures the performance of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading, science, math and writing.
Jim Watts, vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, which monitors educational developments in 16 states, said Kentucky students have done "reasonably well" on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in the wake of Kentucky's education reforms.
Gary Ritter, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, has analyzed the results of the four Kentucky National Assessment of Educational Progress tests given at least twice.
Ritter said his analysis shows mixed findings and no definitive conclusions. But the balance of the data suggest that Kentucky students' performance has improved since reforms were implemented and certainly exceed the performance of Arkansas students, Ritter said.
The various tests were administered in different years - fourth-grade math in 1992 and 2000; fourth-grade reading in 1992 and 1998; eighth-grade math in 1990 and 2000; and eighth-grade science in 1996 and 2000.
According to Ritter's analysis, fourth-graders demonstrated no improvement in math when comparing results from 1992 and 2000. Students scored below the national average in both cases.
In reading, fourth-graders scored 2 points below the national average in 1992 and 3 points above the national average in 1998.
Eighth-graders in math scored 5 points below the national average in 1990 and 2 points below the national average in 2000.
In science, eighth-graders improved from 1 point below the national average in 1996 to 3 points above the national average in 2000.
"This shows that Kentucky may well be a good model for reform," Ritter concluded.
For lower-performing schools, the state established a "highly skilled educator" program in which educators are sent to individual schools to advise and help implement improvements in curriculum and administration.
Family-resource and youth services centers were designed to help low-income students and their families not only improve a child's academic performance but provide job training and access to medical and mental-health services if needed.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act called for a center eventually to be available at every school. The state hasn't been able to completely fund that commitment, although each of the state's 176 districts has at least one such center.
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, described the centers as "the unsung, most significant success story of our reform."
The Kentucky Education Reform Act established an Office of Educational Oversight to enforce new anti-nepotism laws to ensure that money is spent for educational not political purposes.
Especially in smaller districts, lawmakers heard complaints about school board members creating positions to benefit their relatives, often in areas where such positions weren't needed. The anti-nepotism provisions of Kentucky's reforms prohibit people from working in school districts where a relative is on the school board.
Also, Kentucky's reform act established site-based decision-making councils for each school, consisting of a principal, three teachers and two parents. The councils have power to make many decisions previously made by the superintendent's office or the school board, in areas of hiring and funding priorities.
The new school-funding formula was devised in consultation with Myers' partner, John Augenblick. It set a "foundation" funding amount allocated to all school districts. Each district receives additional funding on the basis of its populations of special education or learning-disabled children, transportation needs and other things.
The formula also includes equalization funding, money allotted on the basis of a district's property wealth and student population. Property-poor, high-population districts get the most equalization money, while property wealthy districts get little or no equalization aid.
Finally, the formula allows wealthier districts to supplement its state funding with local revenue, but the amount is capped to maintain as equal as possible funding among all districts.
Districts are allowed to collect an amount of local revenue that won't raise their total spending to more than 148 percent of the amount spent by the state's lowest-spending district. The cap can be adjusted every two years by the Legislature.
Hunter said capping school district spending wouldn't fly in many states - "certainly not in New York" - but it has been accepted in Kentucky.
"They've had a different attitude, sort of like all our kids deserve a decent education," Hunter said. "It's not like, 'My kids count and somebody else's don't.' Higher-spending districts aren't able to spend all they want, but if they want to spend more, they're free to lobby the Legislature to raise the limit."
Now, Kentucky education leaders say it may be difficult for Kentucky to continue improving education without more money. When the economy was booming in the 1990s, lawmakers cut taxes $ 2 billion. Now a slumping economy has left the state facing a $ 500 million deficit.
Because of increased spending on Medicaid, prisons and other programs, education's share of the state's general fund budget of about $ 7.3 billion has fallen from about 60 percent in the early 1990s to less than 50 percent, said Lisa Gross of the Kentucky Department of Education.
Bickering legislators failed to pass a budget for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, 2002, obliging the governor to set state spending through emergency powers. This doesn't instill confidence that lawmakers can be counted on to make tough decisions to maintain education improvements, several Kentucky education leaders said.
To keep schools technologically advanced and to retain quality teachers, the Kentucky School Boards Association recently proposed increasing the state tax on cigarettes, overhauling the state tax system and expanding gambling. Kentucky currently limits gambling to a lottery and horse racing.
A report issued last month by the Council for Better Education found that about half of the districts have cut a total of 850 positions because of rising costs and flat funding.
Jack Moreland is superintendent of the 4,500-student Covington Independent Public Schools in north-central Kentucky just south of Cincinnati. He said recent budget woes and associated job cuts in many districts have presented "the first chink in the armor" since Kentucky enacted its education reforms.
Moreland, who has been a superintendent since 1980 except for a three-year retirement in the late 1990s, also is president of the Council for Better Education. Formed in the mid-1980s by 66 property-poor school districts to initiate the school-funding lawsuit, the group was revived about a year ago to lobby for continued education improvements. It now includes superintendents from 161 of the state's 176 school districts.
Moreland said a recent study by the council showed that while spending is still more equal than it was at the time of the 1989 ruling, the gap between the richest and poorest districts is growing.
In 1989-90, the difference in spending between the richest and poorest districts was $ 1,390 per student, Moreland said. By 1995-96, the gap had been cut to $ 416 per student. More recently, it has edged up to $ 860 per student.
"The formula works," Moreland said. "It has shown it can close the gap between the highest and lowest groups." The solution is to increase the amount of money dedicated to all districts, he said.
ACHIEVEMENT AND ANXIETY
"Kentucky is held up as a model success story," said Hunter of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. "They did a lot of innovative things."
Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, described the state of education reform in Kentucky as "halfway home and a long way to go."
The committee was formed about 20 years ago to push educational improvements in Kentucky, and its members testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Rose case.
Sexton said progress has been commendable overall, but troubling disparities still exist in certain districts and among certain student populations, such as black and low-income students.
"In the short term, just like every other state, we face a massive financial problem in Kentucky," Sexton said. "I'm very worried that will stop our progress, depending on how the Legislature responds.
"Somehow, the Legislature needs to find additional revenues to invest in education. Exactly how to do that, I don't know," Sexton said.