Saturday, April 11, 2015

25 Years After Reform Effort, Poorest Schools Still Lag

I was contacted by AP reporter Claire Galofaro recently. She was seeking the names of the student plaintiffs in the Rose Case (1989), which I provided. It looks like she traced a few of them down and several had become teachers.

Bert Combs had argued for equity and adequacy. The legislature responded to the Rose decision with KERA's SEEK formula, which was intended to provide both. But in the end, adequate funding would require the legislature to continue to nurture the schools. Following the '89 court case, and the '90 law, the last year it could be said that the legislature kept its promise by providing equity while continuing to work toward adequacy - was the 1991-92 school year. It's been mostly down hill since then.
This from Claire Galofaro and Adam Beam for ABC News:
It was late, and Bob Stephens needed a drink.
The former chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court was wrestling with an opinion in a school funding lawsuit. It was 1989, and what Stephens was about to write would dramatically alter public education in one of the nation's poorest states, then serve as a blueprint for school reforms across the nation.
"He said, 'I'm going to have a little drink of vodka here, and I've decided what I'm going to do is throw out the entire educational funding system in Kentucky. We're going to start from square one,'" Andy Stephens, Bob Stephens' son, recalled 26 years later. ""I said, 'Dad how many little (drinks) have you had already?"

That opinion, written by the late chief justice at a Kentucky horse farm with the help of some vodka, put a dramatic final flourish on one of the first lawsuits across the country to challenge the way states paid for public schools. Based on language in the state constitution requiring "adequate" public education, it ignited a sweeping public education overhaul and prompted other states to follow Kentucky's lead.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act, signed 25 years ago this week, promised to close the vast funding and achievement gaps between the state's richest and poorest schools.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'man, I'm part of something big here. But we had no idea how big it was going to be,'" said Barrett Bradshaw, one of 22 children in Kentucky's poorest school districts who signed up to speak for thousands of other students in the lawsuit. He was 13 in August 1987 when he testified about what his school was failing to teach him.

But a quarter-century later, education advocates say public schools are back where they started. A crippling recession, runaway public pension debt and dramatic increases in Medicaid costs have gobbled up precious resources in state budgets across the country. In response, state officials have reduced the percentage of taxpayer money spent on education, leading once again to the type of disparity that Stephens' unprecedented court order set out to end.

"The formula was put in place to provide equity, not adequacy," said Tom Shelton, president of the Council for Better Education, the group that brought the lawsuit in 1985. "It has to have the right amount of cash put into the formula."

Greg Stumbo, a young lawmaker in 1990, wept on the House floor before the final vote over what it meant for the poverty-stricken children in his home region of Appalachia. Now speaker of the House of Representatives, he acknowledges that progress has been halting but says the law was never funded as it should have been.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act included a $1.3 billion tax increase, gave parents a say in hiring principals and launched a daring, first-of-its kind accountability system for teachers based on how much children were learning. A study commissioned by the Council for Better Education last year found that Kentucky spends $7 billion on education each year, about $2 billion less than it should.
Kentucky ranks 28th in the country in per-pupil spending, a higher standing than before the reforms but still about $1,000 less per student than the national average.

The group will ask lawmakers next year to find new ways to fund education.

Stumbo doubts the legislature will approve another massive tax increase, and the Republicans running for governor say more money is not the answer. The speaker is proposing to legalize casino gambling in Kentucky - a challenging political proposition in its own right in a conservative state - with half of the money funneled to elementary and secondary education.

Bradshaw and several of the other 22 children whose names were on the lawsuit grew up to be teachers. They say their students, as well as their own children, have access to education they never could have imagined.

The Campbell County school district where Bradshaw teaches has an auto body shop, aviation classes and college-level courses. But it's hard to calculate how well the law has kept its promise, said Rhonda Shriver, another student who testified and grew up to become a teacher.

Similar questions nag at Dale Duvall, an Elliott County teacher who signed his daughter up for the lawsuit all those years ago. There's a lot more work to do, he said.

"KERA definitely brought about improvement, but I don't think it brought equality," Duvall said. "I think there's still better times to come."

1 comment:

Richard Innes said...


You wrote: "Following the '89 court case, and the '90 law, the last year it could be said that the legislature kept its promise by providing equity while continuing to work toward adequacy - was the 1991-92 school year."

Did you mean some much later school year? The Revenue and Expenditures reports from KDE show growth in state spending continued throughout the 1990s. I even looked at correction for inflation, and at least through 2001 real state spending was up from the initial pre-KERA year of 1989-90.