Starting Over from Scratch: Kentucky’s Education Reform of 1990

In a stunning decision that forced educational change of an order rarely seen in this country, Kentucky’s Supreme Court in 1989 ruled the entire state public school system unconstitutional because of substantial inequities in the level of school funding in different districts. The state was told to throw out its laws on education and to rewrite them in a form that would guarantee the same level of opportunity for every student. The result was the groundbreaking Education Reform Act of 1990, known as House Bill 940, which went far beyond equalizing funding to require dramatic changes in management, curriculum, and assessment practices.

In the process of researching the Reform Act, the legislative task force called on many educators with close ties to the Coalition of Essential Schools, including Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, and Grant Wiggins, whose work on exhibitions of mastery has shaped much of the Coalition’s thought. Their influence is clear from the shape of the final Act; it calls for statewide performance-based assessment of students by 1995-96, mandates more opportunities for teachers to improve their classroom instruction, and requires school-based decision making, including parent participation, in every district. By 1993, a “model curriculum framework” will be provided by the State Board of Education to local schools; its emphasis is on developing the following abilities:

  • to use basic communication and math skills for situations students will encounter throughout their lives
  • to apply principles from math, sciences, arts, humanities, and practical living studies to situations they will encounter throughout their lives
  • to become self-sufficient individuals
  • to become responsible members of a family, work group, or community
  • to think and solve problems in school situations and in life
  • to connect and integrate experiences and new knowledge with what one has previously learned, and build on past learning experiences to acquire new information through various sources.

Schools that increase their proportion of successful students–defined as those who make a successful transition to work, post-secondary education, and the military–will receive financial rewards, and school staff members will decide how those funds are to be spent. Those in trouble will embark on a crisis program, working with “distinguished educators” and special funds to bring about more rapid change.