Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.
Former House Speaker Jody Richards recently announced he would not seek re-election this year.
Richards, D-Bowling Green, who went to Frankfort the year Jimmy Carter was elected president, pounded the gavel in the House for 14 years, making him the longest-serving Speaker in Kentucky’s history.
His legacy involves playing a key role as longtime House Education Committee chairman in shaping the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990, which was accompanied by a $1.3 billion tax increase – the largest since Daniel Boone wandered through the Cumberland Gap and first laid eyes on what would become America’s 15th state.
Among the many fads KERA forced on schools were School Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils, which gave teachers control of their school’s most important funding, personnel and curriculum decisions.
Thankfully, the legislature stands poised to make progress toward significantly reducing SBDM authority and returning it to superintendents and elected school boards, where it belongs and will make it possible for parents and citizens to demand accountability for the way schools operate and educate.
Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, has introduced sound SDBM-reform legislation which includes returning the hiring of principals to superintendents with councils playing a more-appropriate advisory role.
It also requires councils to report their activities annually to – and align their policies with – their school boards.
It also allows board members to “overturn a decision, policy, or action of a school council” they determine to be “inconsistent with local board policy” or a “hindrance to the efficient operation of the district as a whole.”
Also, it provides a mechanism and process whereby SBDM authority can be removed from clearly failing schools.
KERA also promised that this experimental and highly controversial approach to managing schools would get parents more involved in their children’s schools, even though parents would be relegated to a minority vote on the councils.
So, how’s that working out?
An analysis of state data reveals that nearly 73 percent of Kentucky’s 1,124 schools during the 2016-17 school year had only single-digit ratios of parents compared to total student enrollment even bothering to show up to vote in SBDM elections for their council representatives.
While 15 schools did have SBDM voter-to-student ratios of at least 50 percent, such a response was by far the exception.
Nearly three out of four Kentucky schools had only single-digit ratios with 101 schools having even less than 1 percent turnout in last school year’s SBDM elections.
There are limitations to such an analysis of enrollees because it doesn’t include the total number of parents in a school since some students come from two-parent homes – both of whom can vote in SBDM elections – or have siblings enrolled in the same schools.
Still, when only about one in 10 students is likely represented in the vast majority of council elections, it’s reasonable to conclude that parent interest in SBDM activities in most Kentucky schools is sparse.
While Schickel’s bill doesn’t give parents an equal or majority vote on the councils, it does provide a process whereby parents can appeal to school-board members, who, in turn, can make their case to the state Board of Education regarding why SBDM authority should be removed from failing schools.
So, while Richards and his fellow politicians reaped the political benefits of KERA, many of its experimental fads – including the SBDM approach to governing schools – were flops and failures.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.