Senate Bill 7, an act relating to school councils, has been filed in the Kentucky Legislature by Kentucky State Senator John Schickel and nine other leading senators. The bill will make some badly needed revisions to Kentucky’s highly problematic School Based Decision Making (SBDM) system for governing the state’s public schools. Some of these major changes include:
- Allowing a locally elected school board to require an annual report of activities from a school council;
- Reducing the minimum number of teachers serving on the council to two, making the number of parents equal to the number of teachers;
- Specifying that a council decision is appealable to the locally elected school board;
- Requiring the locally elected board of education to adopt a policy allowing the board to initiate review of a school council decision;
- Specifying a requirement for alignment of school council policy with locally elected school board policy;
- Allowing a teacher to be transferred while serving on the school council;
- Specifying that locally elected school board members may attend council meetings;
- Permit a superintendent to forward qualified applicants for teaching and other positions to the principal instead of the council;
- Altering principal hiring process by requiring principal to be selected by the superintendent after consultation with school council; and
- Requiring school council authority to be transferred to the superintendent if a school is identified for comprehensive support and improvement.
These changes are all worthwhile, restoring a logical chain of authority to Kentucky’s public schools.
At present, Kentucky’s laws regarding school governance, which still date from the now 30-years old Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), severely insulate local school councils from any real influence or control by either the locally elected school board or the district’s chief executive, the school superintendent. At present, superintendents and locally elected school boards have absolutely no say about many school council policies or about such important items as selection of curriculum and staff in the school. The school council’s decisions on how to spend money allocated to the school are also not currently recallable by either the locally elected school board or the superintendent, either.
School Based Decision Making has caused considerable mayhem in some school districts.
For example, different elementary schools feeding the same middle school can adopt very different and uncoordinated curricula featuring totally difference textbooks, digital programs and so forth. As a result, the middle school gets overloaded trying to get very differently prepared children onto the same page.
In the end, the middle school gets low scores on state tests while the problems really start in the elementary schools. But, no one has the authority to fix this problem under the current law. Ultimately, children suffer accordingly while the elementary schools involved escape all accountability.
Similar problems can impact high schools fed by multiple lower-level schools or even by a single middle school that simply uses a weak curriculum. No one can enforce any semblance of coordination between the two schools.
Staffing can also turn into a popularity contest. Under current law, teachers are currently in solid control of the school councils. They make the staff picks instead of having the choice made by a more objective process using the school’s head leader to place the best teacher in the classroom.
It gets worse. The locally elected school board members are supposed to represent the best interests of the community and taxpayers, but there have actually been cases of school board members being sanctioned just for attending a meeting of a school council. Basically, the taxpayers’ representatives are effectively being denied the ability to even gather facts about what is really happening in the schools.
And, certainly, after 30 years of KERA reforms under the school council model, no reasonable person would claim the process works terribly well. After all, only 40% of the state’s fourth graders and just 29% of the eighth graders scored proficient in math on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress. When we look at what is happening to minority students, the numbers look far worse.
But, local board members and the superintendent are left powerless under KERA to require better.
So, SB-7 looks like a good attempt to get some intelligent school management in Kentucky.
Certainly, what we are doing isn’t attractive elsewhere. No other state has adopted our awkward and often dysfunctional school governance model. And, that might start to be a big deal as we learn more about the remarkable school reforms happening in Mississippi. Very simply, we probably will never be able to do what Mississippi is doing so long as we are shackled by the school council model we currently have. And, if we don’t change, Mississippi – which has already outdistanced us for NAEP math and reading for white and black students in the fourth grade – is just going to see Kentucky get smaller and smaller in their rearview mirror.