Senate bill focus of concern at Kentucky education board meeting

Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt
Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt Lexington

State education officials are breaking their silence about a Senate Republican education reform bill.

On Wednesday at the Kentucky Board of Education’s regular meeting, board member Mary Gwen Wheeler said there were pieces in the bill “that I think make a lot of decisions about education more political.”

Senate Bill 1 would create a new review structure for state academic standards and delete some aspects of the statewide testing system.

The legislation proposes that beginning in fiscal year 2017-2018, and every six years after that, academic standards and assessments would be reviewed for replacement or revision. Panels of educators would make suggestions to a standards and assessments recommendation committee composed of nine members — three appointed by the governor, three state senators appointed by the Senate president and three House members appointed by the House speaker. The committee would make final recommendations to the Kentucky Board of Education.

In January, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt would not comment on the bill sponsored by Republican Senate Education chairman Mike Wilson of Bowling Green.

But on Wednesday, Wheeler said the legislation made decisions about education more political.

“This board is a board that has been composed to be a professional board, to have a professional leader that is not affected by partisan politics,” she said.

Senate Bill 1 could lead to changes in the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, which are aligned with the national Common Core standards and have been criticized by Senate Republicans.

Additionally, Senate Bill 1 would eliminate social studies from Kentucky’s statewide assessment requirements and make other deletions from the state’s accountability system.

An education department staff member expressed concern that the legislation deletes certain scores from the state accountability model and transfers oversight on persistently low achieving schools from the state to local districts.

Senate President Robert Stivers told the Herald-Leader last week that senators are working on revising the legislation in a Senate education committee substitute bill. The committee has not yet heard the bill.

Stivers said lawmakers in the Senate want a consensus in the Senate about the legislation. Wilson has been meeting with education groups, Stivers said.

On another topic, Office of Administration and Support Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney told the board that at the governor’s direction, the state budget office has instructed the department to cut nearly $18 million between now and June 30.

“The problem is that many of these funds already have been paid out,” Kinney said in a news release, “so the options on what and where to cut are limited.”

State board members were concerned about the 4.5 percent reduction as well as the proposed 9 percent cuts in each year of the upcoming biennium in Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget. Bevin said the state’s main funding formula for K-12 education would get an increase of $39 million to help schools deal with projected enrollment increases.

While basic SEEK funding appears to be protected, department staff said that more than 90 percent of the education budget is comprised of funds that go to school districts for programs outside the SEEK formula and less than 1 percent of the budget supports Frankfort-based operations.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears