Forum highlight’s Kentucky’s educational standards

Published 2:30 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2024

By Michael J. Collins, Bowling Green Daily News

The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision in the Rose v. Council for Better Education has guided education policy for decades – but has it been successful?

That’s the question the Kentucky Student Voice Team, along with educators, students and parents both local and from around the state, sought to answer at an open forum Saturday in Bowling Green.

The Rose case, brought forth by 66 school districts in 1989, ultimately found that the General Assembly and then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson had not met constitutionally-bound requirements for education quality.

The court laid out seven “capacities” of good education in their decision, including “sufficient oral and written communication skills,” “sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems,” “sufficient understanding of governmental processes,” and “sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness.”

The bill known as KERA – the Kentucky Education Reform Act – was passed in 1990 to help overhaul Kentucky’s schools and prevent political interference, basing many changes on the Rose capacities.

KSVT Public Engagement and Policy Partner Will Powers said forum participants were allowed to speak anonymously among themselves and as a group.

One small group discussion featured three students from Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green, a local nonprofit attorney and a local former principal. The local participants spoke mostly of the “politicization” of education from politicians and leaders, though not necessarily from districts themselves.

Both the attorney and former principal agreed that certain concepts are “tip-toed” around, including discussions of race, class and gender, for fear of upsetting parents. They attributed this to the “climate” of education rather than specific educators or leaders.

They added that education policies are too often driven by leaders without educational backgrounds, resulting in “stifled” potential.

The attorney and former principal also focused on the benefits of Site-Based Decision Making councils, a concept that came about through KERA. These councils require input from teachers, parents and students to make decisions within a school, and forum participants said they have allowed for better communication and engagement overall.

The students from Lexington and Louisville said their respective schools struggled with several capacities of the Rose decision, including civic education and financial literacy. Each of them also spoke of the inequality they see between districts across the state, often unnoticed in the “bubble” around urban districts in larger cities.

Every participant spoke of the benefits of a diverse district and discouraged banning “divisive” concepts like Senate Bill 93 currently proposes.

In a large group discussion, participants largely highlighted three Rose capacities in need of improvement: College readiness and technical training, knowledge of economic, social, and political systems and mental and physical health.

Participants said political, economic and social awareness are not being taught effectively, again driven by a stigma against discussing “controversial topics” like race, class and gender.

One participant said an excessive focus on test scores leads to untested concepts being glossed over and suggested these topics could be taught better if test scores were emphasized less.

Powers noted the forum heard more negative feedback on college and technical readiness than previous events held in Corbin and Louisville. Participants said districts often expect parents to help with the application and FAFSA process, though this isn’t always possible or easy for families.

Several suggested that school counselors should be utilized more to meet these needs, though others argued counselors and educators alike are “overloaded” with work already.

Participants also said counselors struggle to “personalize” services for students, with one adding that the needs of a refugee student can be very different from a student who experiences anxiety, for example.

A large number of participants said districts don’t focus enough on physical health education, with one saying that physical health “can’t be separated from mental health.”

Several participants said these issues largely arise due to a lack of adequate funding from the General Assembly.

KSVT will use comments to create a detailed memo published at for legislators, school districts and the public within a week or two. Their ultimate goal, Powers said, is to craft a report later this year that synthesizes feedback from forums and focus groups across the state.

He added that discussing the Rose capacities is especially important due to their impact even beyond Kentucky.

“This is a model for the nation,” Powers said. ”I think it’s been cited over 400 times by courts around the country and over eight states have the Rose capacities specifically within their constitution.”

Powers said the Bowling Green forum brought out more educators than previous events. He said teachers in Corbin expressed reluctance to critique their schools for fear of backlash, but Powers did not see that locally.

He said engagement with the public shows that the Rose capacities “still ring true today” but require a renewed commitment to delivering them.

Mike Gregory, a professor of law at Harvard University and Youth Advocacy and Policy Lab director, began working with KSVT after exploring the Rose decision and its impacts on other states’ policies.

Through the forums held across Kentucky so far, Gregory said he’s discerned a disconnect between the public discourse around education and what people say personally.

“One of the most powerful things that I’ve noticed is that if you’re an outsider and you’re reading the newspapers about what’s going on legislatively and politically about education in Kentucky, that doesn’t really match what you hear when you go into communities and listen to actual students, parents and educators talking about their schools,” Gregory said.

Gregory added that participants have focused more on health, wellness and post-graduation opportunities than “ideological” issues discussed among policymakers. He said similar sentiments have been shared across “rural, urban, red, blue, all kinds of lines of division.”

“The ‘agenda’ (of participants) is, ‘we just want to give kids a good education, we want to be competitive economically,’ ” Gregory said. “We also want to have a healthy democracy. You can’t have a healthy democracy if kids aren’t being given these capacities.”

He added that Kentucky’s educational rights are some of “the strongest in the country” due to the Rose decision, a fact he wants more people to understand.

“What a constitutional right means is that it’s not dependent on headwinds, it’s not dependent on funding – it’s a constitutional right,” Gregory said. “It’s sacred, and all it takes is for people to stand up and demand that it be respected, and people have the power to do so.”