Sunday, June 20, 1999

School reform merits review


Education act still under debate

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Get ready for some hand-wringing over the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Its 10-year anniversary is coming up — the perfect excuse for reflection on myth vs. fact.

        We want to hear from readers with personal perspectives to share.

        To date, the KERA discussion has been dominated by people at one extreme or another; they associate Kentucky's reform with two or three controversies, tops. School accountability testing is a big one. So is the redistribution of money to districts.

        But much more has taken place in Kentucky's schools over the last 10 years. Ordinary teachers, parents and students know these changes best, but their voices are rarely heard over the din from KERA's boosters and critics.

        Out of this historic legislation came family resource centers, writing portfolios, school-based councils, after-school programs and interesting shake-ups of the status quo. Beginning grade levels in elementary schools were merged for a while, then schools were allowed to bring them back. “Performance events” were briefly used to test students' knowledge, then ditched.

        KERA has always been a work in progress. Every session, the General Assembly tinkers. So does Kentucky's education department, now run by a professional educator as opposed to a politician.

        With so much still evolving, we want to hear your complaints, praise and suggestions for improvement. You don't have to know anything about KERA. The point is to explore what's happening in classrooms today.

        Are Kentucky students prepared for the rigors of college? Do teachers get enough training? How are family resource centers helping kids? What has been the impact of parent participation on site-based councils?

        Bottom line: Are you happy with Kentucky schools?

        For the uninitiated, here's a primer on KERA: The act was passed in 1990, several years

        after school superintendents sued the state. They claimed kids in poor areas were suffering because their schools got less money than those in rich neighborhoods.

        In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed and went even further, declaring the state's entire system of public instruction unconstitutional. Funding wasn't solely to blame, the court said. Other problems included dysfunctional school boards and poor classroom instruction.

        The sweeping nature of the court's ruling distinguished Kentucky from other states. In Ohio, for instance, the funding system has been declared unconstitutional, but not the whole shebang.

        In 1990, Kentucky's General Assembly responded with a top-to-bottom restructuring.

        KERA significantly changed the culture of districts in Eastern Kentucky, where school board members had long used their hiring powers to keep family members employed. Nepotism was outlawed under KERA, and school boards lost much of their pow er.

        In Frankfort, a new Office of Education Accountability began investigating corruption. State managers temporarily took over the worst districts; and, around the state, a handful of school board members were removed from office for malfeasance.

        Politics had been less of a problem in Northern Kentucky, and in general, our districts were doing better than those in other regions. Still, we experienced all of the classroom changes; so some Northern Kentuckians view KERA as a solution in search of a problem.

        I think reality is more complicated. There's good and bad in everything, KERA included. Let's kick off the 10th anniversary by finding some common ground.

Call us
        Teachers, parents, students, employers: Call us with your personal perspective on the quality of education in Kentucky.

        What are the most positive aspects of Kentucky's 10-year experiment in education reform? What hasn't worked? What changes would you like to see in Kentucky classrooms in the millennium?

        Call our reader response line, at 381-2800, and press 7010.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at ksamples@enquirer.com

       



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