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Lawsuit led to overhaul of Kentucky’s public education system

To get an idea of how dramatically a court can change a state’s educational system, consider what happened in Kentucky.

In 1989, a group of Kentucky school districts banded together and sued in state court, challenging the way the state allocated funding for public education.

It was one of the most successful challenges filed so far against a state and has led to some long-lasting changes, said Michael Rebell, the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University.

Nearly a third of the 170 school districts in the state argued the education funding formula was inadequate and unfair because it relied too much on local dollars, which led to great disparities between poor and rich districts. The court found for the plaintiffs and told lawmakers to correct the problem.

The 1990 legislative session in Frankfort was a hectic one, but it produced a new system to ensure students across the state were receiving the same base funding, said David Karem, 74, a Democrat who spent almost 30 years in the state House and Senate and served on a committee that dealt with the aftermath of the lawsuit.

“We sat down and we basically said let’s figure out how to create a new system for the state of Kentucky. We created the skeletal structure on some of the pieces we needed. As we went through the meetings and the discussions, then meat was put on those bones,” he said.

It wasn’t easy, but the session created a new model of funding that wasn’t defined by a student’s geographic location, Karem said.

“The base was significantly more than it had been in the past, and it was much more state-driven to get that baseline,” he said. “Divorce yourself from the idea of this district vs. that district and look at every student as having a value.”

Almost three decades later, many of the laws and education measures related to education from that session remain in place, said Karem, who served on the state Board of Education after leaving the Legislature.

And student achievement has risen, Karem said. Education Week’s 2017 Quality Counts survey, which ranks states on a number of metrics, gives Kentucky a C- overall, landing it 28th in the nation. Nevada, by comparison, was given a D and ranks dead last, at 51.

Karem said Kentucky used to be at the bottom of the pack, but since the changes has settled more in the middle, a sign the changes made improvements, he said.

“Considering our economy and a lot of problems that Kentucky has with the loss of jobs in the coal industry … I think it’s fair to say that it’s worked,” he said.

Contact Meghin Delaney at 702-383-0281 or mdelaney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MeghinDelaney on Twitter.

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