SCHOOL-BASED DECISION-MAKING IN KENTUCKY
Dr. Wayne D. Lewis
University of Kentucky
Paper presented at the International Symposium on Educational Reform,
South, Africa, July 2010
Please direct all correspondence to:
Dr. Wayne D. Lewis
University of Kentucky
013 Dickey Hall
Lexington, Kentucky (USA) 40506-0017
Office: (859) 257-2540
Cell: (859) 948-8516
Among the most significant of the Kentucky Education Reform Act’s (KERA) reforms was the mandate that local school boards decentralize control of major school functions to school councils composed of the principal, teachers, and parents; SBDM and shared decision-making (also called participatory management and participatory decision making) were to become central to reforming public education in Kentucky. The paper provides background information on the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), including more specific discussion of its school-based decision making (SBDM) mandate; and gives some treatment to two lingering issues that Kentucky must deal with as the state’s SBDM councils go forth: the composition of SBDM councils, and the selection of school principals. The paper concludes with what other systems preparing to implement similar reforms can take away from Kentucky’s experience.
Over the last two decades, public education in the state of Kentucky, USA has experienced unprecedented reform. In 1989 the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in Rose v. Council for Better Education (Rose), that the state’s system of common schools was unconstitutional (Bauries, 2010; Foster, 1999; Steffy, 1993). As a result, the Kentucky General Assembly’s hand was forced into passing the most comprehensive statewide education reform legislation to date. House Bill 940, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), was signed into law on April 11, 1990 by Governor Wallace Wilkinson. Kentucky, a state whose public education system had historically ranked near the bottom of the list of American states on indicators of K-12 public education success, had passed legislation that would effectively create an entirely new public school system with fundamental reforms in finance, curriculum and school governance (David, 1994; Foster, 1999; Lindle, 1996; Steffy, 1993; Van Meter, 1991; Wall & Rinehart, 1997).
Among the most significant of KERA’s reforms was a mandate that every public school district in the state a) have a school-based decision-making policy in place by January 1991, and b) be operating with school-based decision-making (SBDM) councils by the start of the 1996-1997 school year. KERA granted the newly created SBDM councils ultimate responsibility over eight areas: curriculum, staff assignment, student assignment, school schedule, instructional practices, discipline, extracurricular programs, and alignment with state standards (Lindle, 1996; Van Meter, 1991).
Such a new organizational structure has required a major shift in how education leaders in Kentucky think about school governance and operation. Indeed, the state’s decentralization of governance of critical areas of school administration including budgets and human resources functions to schools, signals a rather significant shift in its approach to school governance and decision-making. Although many would call Kentucky’s progress with SBDM successful, as with any new reform, some unresolved issues remain. This paper provides the history of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), including more specific discussion of its school-based decision making (SBDM) mandate; and gives some treatment to two lingering issues that Kentucky must deal with as the state’s SBDM councils go forth: the composition of SBDM councils, and the selection of school principals. The paper concludes with what other systems preparing to implement similar reforms can take away from Kentucky’s experience.
Rose and the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA)
In 1985, the Council for Better Education (the combination of 66 local Kentucky school districts, seven local boards of education, and 22 public school students) filed a class action equity law suit challenging the state of Kentucky’s structures for financing public schools, which relied greatly on the property wealth of the local school district. The Circuit Court Judge Ray Corns ruled that the state’s funding system was both “discriminatory” and inefficient; and on appeal, the Kentucky Supreme Court in a landmark decision ruled that Kentucky’s entire educational system was unconstitutional. The high Court’s opinion in Rose stated:
Since we have by this decision, declared the system of common schools in Kentucky tobe unconstitutional, Section 183 places an absolute duty on the General Assembly to re-create, re-establish a new system of common schools in the Commonwealth. As we have said, the premise of this opinion is that education is a basic, fundamental constitutional right that is available to all children within this Commonwealth. (p. 29-30)
The Kentucky Supreme Court also set forth the following essential and minimal characteristics of an efficient educational system: a) its establishment, maintenance, and funding are the responsibility of the General Assembly; b) funding is sufficient for providing every child an adequate education; c) it is free of cost to all citizens; d) it is sustainably uniform and provides equal educational opportunities to all Kentucky children; e) it is monitored the General Assembly; and f) schools operate under the premise that an adequate education is a state constitutional right (Steffy, 1993).
With the preceding directives, the Kentucky General Assembly took action, passing KERA which created an entirely new public school system with fundamental reforms in virtually every area of public schooling. KERA included provisions that created new equity-based procedures for allocating state funds to local public school districts; established the regulatory board (Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board) that has responsibility for certification of Kentucky teachers and administrators, and educator preparation programs at Kentucky colleges and universities; required the establishment of a state early-childhood program for at-risk four-year olds; abolished the existing Kentucky Board of Education; and restructured the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), “with a new emphasis on providing technical and developmental support while deemphasizing previous regulatory functions of the agency” (Van Meter, 1991, p. 60).
KERA established Kentucky’s current equity-based formula for funding public schools, the SEEK (Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky) Formula. Among the SEEK Formula’s most significant improvements has been ensuring a minimum foundation revenue level for every district in the state regardless of its property wealth, and allowing for add-on funds for special needs and at-risk students. Doing so has required that the state take on a significantly heavier burden with funding financially struggling local school districts. Today, on average, 8.5% of K-12 expenditures in Kentucky are federally contributed, 39.9% are locally contributed, and 55.6% of expenditures are contributed by state government (Schimpff, 2010).
KERA brought about a number of school governance changes, specifically relating to the powers of local school boards and local superintendents. In an effort to deal with perceived rampant nepotism in the hiring practices of local boards, KERA stripped local school boards of nearly all of their powers to hire; with the only exception being boards’ retaining their power to hire local superintendents of schools. KERA did, however, curtail some of the local boards’ power to terminate local superintendents. Prior to KERA’s passage, local boards could terminate superintendents with a simple majority vote of the five member board. With the new reforms, while local boards retained their power to terminate local superintendents’ contracts, the can only do so with the approval of the state commissioner of education. KERA gave the responsibility for all other personnel actions within local school districts, including hiring, transfer, dismissal, suspension, promotion, and demotion, to the local superintendents of schools; with the superintendent only informing the local board of his or her actions (Foster, 1999; Steffy, 1993).
KERA’s state-level school governance reforms included the replacement of the state superintendent of public instruction with a new position, a state commissioner of education. The commissioner would serve at the pleasure of the new State Board of Education, who would be appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Further, KERA eliminated all positions in the Kentucky Department of Education. Over the years, Department of Education staff had come to be not very highly regarded. In fact, many citizens and state government officials believed that the incompetence of Department of Education officials and staff were largely to blame for the deplorable state of public education in Kentucky (Steffy, 1993). The first commissioner of education, who was to be selected by a committee of representatives of the governor’s office and the state general assembly, was authorized to conduct a comprehensive study of the Department and completely reorganize it.
School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) Councils in Kentucky
Arguably the most significant and most widely noted of KERA’s reforms was the mandate that local school boards decentralize control of major school functions to school councils composed of the principal, teachers, and parents; SBDM and shared decision-making (also called participatory management and participatory decision making) were to become central to reforming public education in Kentucky. The basic idea behind SBDM is that there should be “greater control of building management by those who work in the building” (Cook, 2007, p. 131). As such, school-level personnel and parents, not district or state level administrators, should be able to “discover problems, solve them in time, and make a greater contribution to the effectiveness of teaching and learning activities” (Cheng, 1996, p. 47). Further, placing decision making authority with a school council comprised of a set of diverse stakeholders as opposed to a single school-level administrator was based on the premise that “higher quality decision will emerge from a greater range of perspectives than that of a central authority” (Johnson & Logan, 2000, p. 312). KERA’s SBDM mandate required every public school district in the state have a school-based decision-making policy in place by January 1991; and by the beginning of the 1991-1992 school year, all local districts were required to have at least one school operating with an SBDM format; and all schools, except those exempted, were required to be operating with SBDM councils by the start of the 1996-1997 school year.
While the type and degree of decision making authority that SBDM reform states and districts have delegated to local schools varies considerably (Ferrara & Repa, 1993; Sandidge, Russo, Harris, & Ford, 1996), KERAs SBDM mandate transferred an unprecedented degree of power to local school councils. KERA vests SBDM councils with authority over governance functions in areas including (Johnson & Logan, 2000; Lindle, 1996; Van Meter, 1991, 1994):
• setting school policy to provide a school environment that enhances student achievement;
• with available funds, determining the number of persons to be employed in each job classification;
• selecting textbooks;
• selecting student support services;
• consulting with the principal to fill teacher vacancies;
• setting the school day and week schedules;
• planning and resolving issues relating to instructional practice;
• determining and implementing discipline policies;
• selecting extra-curricular activities and determining procedures for student participation; and
• selecting a new principal.
Implementing SBDM in Kentucky: Issues Going Forth
While KERA’s SBDM requirement has been lauded widely as one of the boldest state-wide reforms to date, researchers have also raised questions rating to the requirement’s implementation. Such questions have centered around the relationship between local school boards and SBDM councils (Van Meter, 1991), the appropriate balance of power between SBDM councils and local school districts; and the composition of SBDM councils (David, 1994; Lindle, 1996; Van Meter, 1991). This section of the paper provides consideration of two of the issues that linger with SBDM implementation in Kentucky: the composition of SBDM councils, and the selection of school principals.
School Council Composition
Kentucky’s SBDM councils are required to consist of two elected parent representatives; three elected teacher representatives; and the principal who serves as the council’s chairperson, but without veto power. Parent representatives are required to be elected through an election conducted by the school’s largest parent-teacher organization (PTA or PTSA). Through a process determined by the teachers in the building, teacher representatives must be elected to one-year terms on councils by a majority of all teachers assigned to the school building. All full-time and part-time teachers assigned to the school building, including school counselors) are eligible to be elected to SBDM councils. With the approval of the State Board of Education, councils may be organized with more than six members, provided that the membership remains proportional to the six-member council stipulated in legislation. Typically elementary and middle schools use the standard six-member council, while high schools usually expand their councils to 12 members in order to be more representative of their diversity (Lindle, 1996).
Any council that wishes to adopt a model different than the legislatively prescribed one must submit the alternative model to its local board of education, which then will refer the request to the Kentucky Department of Education for approval. The Kentucky Department of Education showed a willingness early on to consider other council models by accepting a council’s request that someone other than the principal be allowed to chair a council (David, 1994). However, such exceptions continue to only be made on a case-by-case basis.
The composition of SBDM councils has been a sticking point from the very beginning. Some Kentucky schools have expressed concerns that the composition of councils as required by KERA is not as inclusive as they should be (David, 1994). A number of schools have unsuccessfully petitioned for the inclusion of classified employees,—administrative assistants, attendance clerks, cafeteria workers, or bus drivers— nonparent community members, and high school students as voting council members (David, 1994; Lindle, 1996). Some schools have included such excluded stakeholders on councils as nonvoting members. While that remedy has appeased some, others remain dissatisfied, contending that “the right to vote—or to participate in reaching consensus—is key” (David, 1994. p. 708).
Concern over the lack of racial/ethnic diversity on SBDM councils also emerged early on. In 1994, the Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Education petitioned the General Assembly to approve changes to KERA that would facilitate the inclusion of minority parents on SBDM councils. Kentucky had (and continues to have) a small minority population of approximately eight percent, most whom were African Americans concentrated in Lexington and Louisville. But “the earliest SBDM Councils did not reflect even this small amount of diversity” (Lindle, 1996, p. 21). In response, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 51 in 1994 to require that schools having eight percent or more minority students enrolled—as determined by the school’s enrollment on the preceding October 1st—have at least one council member that is a “minority;” where “minority” is defined as American Indian; Alaskan native; African-American; Hispanic, including persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Central or South American origin; Pacific islander; or any other ethnic groups which is underrepresented in the school. In the event that a minority council member is not elected through the initial council election procedures, the school principal is required to organize a special election to elect an additional minority parent; and to allow teachers to select one minority teacher to serve as a teacher member on the council. If the school does not have minority teachers, an additional teacher member must be elected by a majority of all teachers.
While Senate Bill 51 passed with a broad base of support in both the House and Senate, support was not unanimous. Democratic Senator Charles Berger charged that the measure would give minority parents two votes—one vote in the general election and second vote in the “minority election” (May, 1994a, A9). Similarly, Republican Senator Mark Treesh spoke against the bill, arguing that it “interfered with the elective process and could lead to similar interference in school board and General Assembly elections” (May & Carlton, 1994, A6).
In a test of the new provision, Cassidy Elementary School in Lexington submitted a proposal to allow white parents to participate in the election of the minority council member. The law does not specify who would vote in the special election to elect a minority parent. Specifically, the proposal called for a second round of voting in the event that a minority parent is not elected to council, where all parents would elect a minority parent council member. Arguing in support of the proposal and in criticism of the minority membership policy, Cassidy principal Richard Day charged, “It’s almost like we’ve been asked to close our eyes to an election based on what race a person is, whether they can run in it or whether they can vote in it…It doesn’t have to be that way” (May, 1994c, B1).
Both the African-American Education Coalition and the Lexington-Fayette Urban League vocally opposed Cassidy’s proposal, calling it “an attempt to circumvent and tinker with a state law” (May, 1994d, B1). One of Senate Bill 51’s co-sponsors, Democratic Senator Ed Ford admitted that that the bill does grants special privileges to minority parents but that “such privileges are acceptable in society” (May, 1994d, B1). The proposal was approved by the Fayette County School Board and forwarded it to the State Board of Education who rejected it. Additionally, the Attorney General issued an opinion stating that only parents of minority children were permitted to vote in the special elections.
Another area of discussion has been teachers’ domination of Kentucky’s SBDM councils. Teachers and teacher advocates defend the majority that they hold on SBDM councils, charging that “teachers are the ones most accountable for improving their schools…[T]eachers can get cash bonuses for big improvements or lose their jobs if the schools fall behind” ( May, 1994b, A8). These sentiments are not new, and date back to the Teacher Council Movement of the early 20th Century. Teachers of that time insisted on the democratization of school decision making through “a wider and more effective participation of teachers in formulating and directly the schools’ education policies” (Ortman, 1923, p. 1). But a council structure that ensures that teachers occupy half of all voting seats on councils is at odds with tenets of the community control movement, which espouses not only administrative and professional decentralization of school decision making, but a governance structure where “the community shares decision-making power with the school and central administration over the running of the schools” (Weise & Murphy, 1995, p. 117). Further, for community control advocates, “community is not defined by participants in a particular school [parents and students], but by geographic area” (Weise & Murphy, 1995, p. 117).
Within SBDM reform efforts in the United States and abroad, school councils have been used to institutionalize the participation of various stakeholders, with the belief that “providing a voice for various stakeholders in schools will lead to better decision making and a greater commitment from all groups to improve educational outcomes (Shatkin & Gershberg, 2007, p. 584). School councils in some places have included nonparent community members. For example, before the recent elimination of the SBDM in Chicago, Local School Councils’ (LSCs) elected membership consists of two teachers from the school, six parents of children currently enrolled in the school, two community residents from the school’s service area, and in high schools, a nonvoting student representative.
SBDM reform in Chicago, however, came about in a considerably different manner than it did in Kentucky. The inclusion of nonparent community members as voting school council members, and the minority position of professional educators on LSCs in Chicago was largely the result of that city’s SBDM reform having its roots in the community control movements beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and continuing into the present era. Chicago’s minority and low-income residents’ pervasive distrust of the public schools and growing concern for the dismal achievement of low-income students has produced tremendous support for community control of schools (Epps, 1994; Sandidge, Russo, Harris, & Ford, 1996; Shatkin & Gershberg, 2007). In response, the Illinois General Assembly adopted the Chicago School Reform Act (CSRA) of 1988 which transferred the majority decision-making authority from the district central office to local school councils. In addition to the hope that community control of schools would result in better educational opportunities for children, it offered to residents “a means to strengthen communities, to rebuild culture, and to buttress families” (Sandidge et a., 1996, p. 316).
Balancing accountability for school outcomes and who possesses the authority to govern schools is a recurring theme in discussions of shared decision making and community control of schools. Chicago’s recent elimination of many LSCs is evidence of the tension that has existed between educational leaders and communities regarding the governance of public schools. Former Chicago Public Schools Board president Rufus Wilson called the LSC school governing arrangement “a flawed system,” contending that “Those of us who are responsible for the schools simply ask that we have the authority because we have the accountability for them” (Duckett, 2010, p. 3). Conversely, Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Chicago’s Parents United for Responsible Education contends that the eliminate of LSCs represents “CPS’s [Chicago Public Schools’] total disregard for community and parent involvement…These are our children; we should have a say in their education” (Duckett, 2010, p. 3).
The debate is probably not one that will end soon. Kentucky’s choice to not include nonparent community members as voting members on SBDM councils and SBDM councils’ domination by educational professional—three seats for teachers, and one for the principal who serves as chair—reflects a belief that schools should be governed primarily by those who are directly accountable for their success or failure; but with input from those who the schools serve directly, parents. Conversely, Illinois’ decision to structure LSCs with the majority of its seats going to parents and nonparent community members is reflective of a belief that parents and communities should have significant input in the governance of schools. Chicago’s recent elimination of many of its LSCs, however, represents a shift back in Kentucky’s direction. These decisions are as much political and ideological as they are practical; and systems designing and in the midst of SBDM reform must work toward achieving a workable balance with school governance between education professionals and the communities that they serve.
Considerable controversy has also surrounded Kentucky SBDM council’s authority to select the building principal when a vacancy occurs. Nonetheless, the council’s power to hire the building principal is one of the greatest testaments of KERA’s commitment to place school decision-making power with school-level councils. Councils, do not, however, have the authority to dismiss the principal. That authority is vested in the local superintendent.
Kentucky is not alone in its decision to vest school councils with the authority to select school principals. Local School Councils in Chicago had even farther reaching power regarding the placement of principals than Kentucky’s SBDM councils. Chicago’s LSCs could fill principal vacancies, appoint principals to renewable four-year terms, develop specific performance criteria for principals, and remove principals for cause (Sandidge et al., 1996).
In Kentucky, after KERA’s enactment, the legislation’s stipulations regarding principal selection had been interpreted by the Kentucky Department of Education to mean that school councils could only consider principal applicants that were qualified, and that only applicants who were recommended by the local superintendent were deemed to be qualified. But in 2004, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in the cases of Young v. Hamilton and Rack v. Robinson that local councils have the right to select from among all applicants meeting the statutory requirements for the position, not just applicants recommended by local superintendents. The state’s high court established a two-tiered process whereby after a school council has considered the applicants recommended by the superintendent, they may request that the superintendent provide them with all remaining legally qualified applicants. According to the Court, an applicant is legally qualified for a principalship in Kentucky if he or she possesses the appropriate administrative certification and has a clear criminal background check.
In 2008, Senate Bill 86 successfully amended KERA to grant local superintendents the authority to appoint building principals when the vacancy occurs in a school with an academic index score in the lowest one-third of all schools below the assistance line, and the results of an official scholastic audit indicate that there is a lack of effectiveness on the part of the principal and the school council. Bills that would grant local superintendents power to select principals in all cases have been unsuccessful. Most recently, during the 2009 regular legislative session, proposed House Bill 322 would have granted local superintendents the authority to select local principals after “consultation with the school council.”
Kentucky superintendents have vocally supported amending current legislative to give superintendents a larger role in selecting all school principals. The Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA), Kentucky’s largest professional organization representing educational leaders, has listed “Restor[ing] a substantive role for superintendents in the selection of building principals” (KASA, 2010, p. 3) as a governance and management legislative priority for the last several years. The Kentucky Association of School Superintendents goes a step further on its legislative wish list, listing “Amending [the Kentucky Revised Statutes] to allow the superintendent to select principals after consultation with SBDM Councils” (Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, 2010).
Kentucky’s largest teachers’ professional association, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA), has fiercely lobbied against any change in legislation that would reduce of SBDM councils’ power to select building principals. Teachers hold the majority of seats on SBDM councils, giving them a substantial voice in selecting school leaders. In fact, the opportunity to select a new principal was a strong motivator for school faculties to vote to form SBDM councils during the early stages of implementation (David, 1994).
The SBDM council’s authority to select the school building principal hits at the very core of what KERA reformers sought; to vest local shared decision-making bodies of varied stakeholders with substantive decision-making authority. Few, if any, decisions are more important that who will lead a school. The impact of a principal on students’ educational experiences cannot be overstated; “An ineffective teacher may damage a classroom of students, but an ineffective principal may damage an entire generation of young people” (Richardson & Prickett, 1990, p. 6).
Selecting an effective principal is not an easy job; and David (1994) found in an early study of SBDM implementation in Kentucky that “the most difficult issues councils face have to do with personnel” (p. 709). According to Pounder and Young (1996) “Effective recruitment and selection of school administrators continues to be one of the more challenging human resource administration functions in educational organizations” (p. 279). Complicating the issue is the reality that in SBDM reform systems, the principalship is considerably more complex, with the school leader typically shouldering more responsibility than principals in districts with more traditional models of school governance. Many decisions that would be made by higher level administrators in districts with more centralized forms of governance become the responsibility of the principal in SBDM schools (Whitaker, 2003).
Kentucky’s local superintendents charge that while councils may be well-meaning, oftentimes they simply do not have the expertise to select an appropriate principal. Some research suggests that superintendents’ concerns are legitimate. Winter and Jaeger (2002) set out to examine the factors that might influence principal selection decisions made by teachers serving on school councils in Kentucky by conducting a simulation with certified public school teachers role-playing as SBDM council members making principal selection decisions according to the procedures stipulated in KERA. Their results indicated that “teachers failed, holding all other job qualifications constant (e.g., principal certification, 5 years of teacher experience), to make optimal principal selection decisions” (p. 20). Winter and Jaeger concluded that “Placing the administrative task of principal selection in the hands of individuals lacking experience in personnel management is a practice that should be re-examined by policy makers and school reformers” (p. 4).
A rather significant limitation of Winter and Jaeger’s (2002) study, however, is its sample of participants. All of the study’s participants were teachers selected at random from a large group of individuals who volunteered to participate. While of the study participants (approximately 22%) had served or were serving on SBDM councils, it is not advisable that we should generalize these individuals’ decisions to an “SBDM council body” charged with decision making. So while Winter and Jaeger’s findings are significant, additional research is needed that specifically examines the decision making processes of seated SBDM council bodies.
KERA’s SBDM policy has been regarded as one of the most comprehensive and systematic SBDM reforms in the US (Sandidge et al., 1996; Steffy, 1993). Like SBDM reforms across the nation, however, there is no conclusive evidence tying decentralization of school governance to significant increases in student academic achievement. But evidence notwithstanding, SBDM reform has fundamentally changed Kentucky’s approach to school governance. While the reform is no longer in infancy, it is still developing. Indeed, it is normal that states’ and districts’ understanding of what SBDM is evolve throughout the implementation process (Harrison, Killion, & Mitchell, 1989).
Other systems interested in implementing SBDM can benefit from Kentucky’s experience. In one vein, as this paper has highlighted, other systems can “gain insights about democracy from the approach that Kentucky’s legislature took to decentralize school governance and ensure representative voices on School-Based Decision-Making (SBDM) Councils” (Lindle, 1996, p. 20). Additionally, Kentucky’s attempt to balance a desire for shared decision-making with parents, and the importance of professional expertise in educational decision-making—namely personnel selection—, provides other systems with food for thought as they design and implement similar reforms.
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