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Kentucky School Councils
Purpose and Problem
The purpose of the Kentucky School Councils, which are more commonly known as school-based decision making councils, is to decentralize school authority to three main groups of stakeholders at each school. This stems from the belief that parental and community engagement raises student achievement. An inequity in funding based on socioeconomic status prompted the Kentucky legislature to mandate the creation of school-based decision making councils. This gave control to local councils over content being taught as long as it aligned with state standards.
The Kentucky Association of School Councils states in its mission statement that they “seek a Kentucky where every child achieves at high levels and every community unites to support that happening in their public schools." In the shared work of creating that commonwealth, the Kentucky Association of School Councils will:
- Affirm the potential of all Kentucky’s children.
- Guide school councils in understanding their purview and responsibilities.
- Help parents, teachers, principals and others realize and value their role in the shared decision-making of their school.
- Promote understanding of learning research.
- Advocate for the development of teacher leaders as well as leadership within the district.
- Participate in statewide decisions that affect education and our students in general.
- Empower our members, directors, staff, and others to serve Kentucky students.
- Invest in long-term strategies to strengthen Kentucky education.” (Kentucky Association of School Councils)
The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in 1990 mandated the creation of school-based decision making councils (SBDM councils). KERA required equal funding for all districts, after the Supreme Court had declared in 1989 the unequal funding practices among school districts to be unconsitutional. Wealthier districts provided better services than poorer districts, and KERA sought to remedy this. In addition, KERA included goals for students, set up a testing system for accountability, and required that each school elect a school council to help determine how each school could reach high standards (Freedom Kentucky). Thus, KERA affected the governance of Kentucky schools because it encouraged more ownership and identification with the schools (Freedom Kentucky).
The impetus for KERA was a coalition of 66 poor school districts, along with 7 other districts, which joined together as The Council for Better Education. This coalition pushed for equity in financing ("School-Based Decision Making in Kentucky," Russo).
Creation and Participant Selection
Each school in Kentucky was required to create a school council by 1996. By 1994, only about half of the necessary councils had been created ("School-Based Decision Making in Kentucky," Russo). Each school council has consisted of 3 teachers, 2 parents, and at least one administrative staff, most typically the principal. Each council member must go through six hours of training with update trainings every few years. Councils have been delegated curriculum decision making; thus, councils have had to determine what is taught, which textbooks were used in classrooms, what extracurricular activities are offered, and who would be teaching.
According to the Kentucky Association of Local Councils, the two parent members must be elected by the parent-teacher organization. If an organization such as the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) does not exist, one must be created. Teachers are to be in charge of electing a teacher council member. A notable requirement, is that if the school has at least 8% minority students on October 1st, the council must have a minority member, and a minority council member must be sought if a parent, teacher, or principal does not already fulfill that requirement.
Deliberation and Decisions
What Councils Do
The five main areas of council responsibility are the following:
- Curriculum and Instruction: The council decides on the curriculum and ensures that it addresses the Kentucky core content and Kentucky program of studies.
- Planning and Budget: The council must work with the school improvement plan
- Personnel: The council must make decisions with the principal about how many people to hire, and the principal must consult the council before hiring new employees. The council also hires new principals.
- Schedule, staff, space, and students: The council determines the policy on school schedule, staff time assignment, use of school space, and policies relating to assigning students to classrooms and programs.
- By-laws: The council establishes how the council will operate and update the by-laws to check for effectiveness.
Councils also work on budgets and professional development, and create policies. Specific council tasks/policies include the following:
- Targets for closing achievement gap
- Test score analysis
- Program evaluation
- Spending for textbooks, instructional materials, and student support
- Alignment with state standards
- Discipline and classroom management
- Technology use
For a more complete list, visit the Kentucky Association of School Councils section on Council Issues.
Analysis and Criticism
Proponents of the Kentucky SBDM councils claim that those have resulted in higher student achievement. A recent study, however, shows that Kentucky public schools are moving too slowly to reach proficiency (Warren 2010). The article published for the Lexington Herald Reader states that “the analysis by three educational advocacy groups shows that only six percent of Kentucky’s high schools are proficient now or are on pace to reach proficiency by 2014” (Warren 2010).
Critics of the Kentucky SBDM councils argue that the lack of qualifications needed to serve on the school council hinders the quality and effectiveness of decision-making. They maintain that six hours of training before beginning to participate on the council is not enough to make decisions such as allocating funds, determining curriculum, and managing the credentials of principals and teachers (Freedom Kentucky).
A 1999 analysis of Kentucky SBDM councils concluded that most members of school councils were inexperienced and primarily made decisions concerning the budget, council procedures, and personnel consultation. It is possible that many decisions were made about council procedures because council members lacked experience in being on a school’s decision-making body. A study found that 97% of parents, 90% of teachers, and 55% of principals had three or fewer years of council experience (Klecker 13). In addition, the number of curriculum decisions was lower in elementary schools than in middle and high schools (Klecker 13).
Yet another study done in 1994 titled “School-Based Decision Making in Kentucky: Dawn of a New Era or Nothing New Under the Sun,” describes three specific issues that SBDM councils highlighted. One issue was the relationship between school boards and school councils: while councils were intended to be “policy-type bodies,” local boards felt a shift in the power structure. A second issue related to the authority councils have to develop policies around curricula and instructional practices, which ties back to lack of experience. In order to illustrate this further, the study provides the example of the Kentucky Distinguished Educator (KDE). This is an experienced and successful educator who is sent to a “school in crisis,” which is a school that undergoes a decrease in the number of proficient students. At the “school in crisis,” the educator works with the principal and staff to implement a school improvement plan. However, this measure takes away individual sovereignty, affects tenure attainment, and makes assumptions about the educator’s professional capacity. Finally, the analysis also raises questions about the council’s composition and whether all key stakeholders truly have a voice on the council.