In the 28 years since the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was passed by the 1990 General Assembly, memories clearly have faded. Philosopher George Santayana famously declared that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” His admonition seems to be worth remembering as we watch the current effort in Frankfort to ramrod wholesale changes in public education disregarding the hard work that went into creating the system nearly three decades ago.
Recalling what Kentucky’s public schools were like in the 1970s and 1980s isn’t so hard. You can read the whole story on the internet — or online at Courier Journal’s archives. I know about them because I saw them up close as a reporter and then editorial writer for the state’s leading newspaper.
The public schools, especially outside the major cities, were terrible. Riddled with incompetence and nepotism, school buildings were crumbling. Per capita spending on children varied widely, as did teaching standards.
All that changed when a lawsuit was brought by former Gov. Bert T. Combs and others contending that public education in Kentucky was unconstitutional. After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, it was up to the General Assembly to come up with remedies to cope with the court ruling. Their solutions, developed with advice from some of the best minds in the country, became a national model. They focused on three distinct areas: finance, governance and curriculum.
The goal was to produce an educated population, to improve compensation for teachers and administrators, and to bring parents more fully into decisions about each school. It included incentives but it also provided penalties for those districts that failed to perform. Various progressive methods were introduced to track student progress and achievement, including standardized testing, “portfolios” in which students demonstrated achievement. There were also family resource centers, offering counseling and health services, which became targets of right-wingers who accused schools of “social engineering.”
In the early days, the support for the reforms came from top business leaders (notably Ashland Oil’s John Hall and Humana’s David Jones Sr.), as well as newspaper editorial pages and teacher’s organizations. In those days, the Kentucky Education Association and the Jefferson County Teachers Association weren’t widely branded as “unions.”
I watched KERA at work with my own children. When my daughter was in the eighth grade at Kammerer Middle School in Louisville, I served as a “writing coach” to work with a bright group of 13-year-olds on the essays that would comprise their portfolios. (I followed some of those kids to adulthood, and in most cases felt as though they had gained a great deal in the way of critical thinking.)
Lessons For Today
KERA wasn’t without its flaws. Certainly it depended too much on the latest trends in testing and teaching. But on the whole it reflected the very best of what forward-thinking Kentuckians could achieve.
There was one other thing that, in my view, made KERA a success — at least in the beginning: a bipartisan majority passed it. Democrats were in control back then, but their general support was augmented by crucial Republican voices like Sen. David Williams and Rep. Anne M. Northup. The role that the Prichard Committee would play in the years to come provided consistent and informed guidance, under the leadership of the late Dr. Robert Sexton.
Central to its success was the insulation (as much as possible in a democracy) of school administrators from political influence. The old days when a county judge could dictate which of his brothers became the superintendent of schools were over. And although a governor could appoint members of the state school board, that body was responsible for selecting the commissioner of education. The commissioner replaced the formerly elected superintendent of public instruction as leader of education policy.
Somehow in the strange political waves of the last generation, right-wing theory, mixed up with a witch’s brew of religion, racism, economics and fear, fueled criticism of public education. As the product of public education in Louisville — from first grade through law school — I am dismayed by these attacks. I believe that public education is the bedrock of an inclusive and educated society. Sadly, I think fewer and fewer people share that view.
Certainly Gov. Matt Bevin and his former rival, Hal Heiner, don’t agree.
Heiner ran a campaign for mayor against Greg Fischer in 2010 that attacked the student assignment plan — responsible for integrating the county’s schools. That strategy may have been the great mistake he made in that closely fought campaign, for on Election Day, African-Americans, who largely favored desegregation, turned out in force to support Mayor Fischer.
In fact, much of the state’s focus on Jefferson County Public Schools has been covertly racist. It is no secret that this district, which is among the nation’s largest and most diverse, is also challenged by raising test scores and addressing sociological discrepancies that are rooted in race and economic status. Louisville’s a different place from Lexington, or Henderson, or Ashland, or Mousie. Our diversity is our strength, but some view it as a hindrance. And with the demise of a strong editorial voice in the commonwealth, nobody even seems aware of the threat, or to care much about it.
These attacks on JCPS also are fueled by the anti-union fever sweeping Kentucky, the same disease that pushed right-to-work legislation through the General Assembly as one of the first Bevin initiatives. Sure, unions have been excessive at times, but they are responsible for far more good than evil.
Likewise, charter schools — for which reams of national research has produced no convincing mandate — were still rammed through the Kentucky legislature. And in the last month, the governor has engineered an ideological coup on the state school board with his appointees, ousted Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, and disgracefully installed a charter school advocate, Wayne Lewis, as interim commissioner.
Whether Bevin and his henchmen do in fact engineer a takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools is yet to be seen, but the signs are increasingly clear. And once that happens, it will ring down the curtain on four decades of reform, beginning with desegregation in 1975 and continuing with KERA. Beyond that, it will place in certain jeopardy the extensive JCPS system of school choice that has underpinned the stability of our neighborhoods, creating a unique success.
Keith Runyon is a retired editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal, where he was a writer and editor from 1969-2012.
This story has been updated.