It was 27 years ago and the Capital Plaza Tower was abuzz with new ideas and new energy and an infusion of money to pull the state’s struggling education system out of the pits where it had been for decades.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act was being hailed around the country as a model for educational change, something that brought together all the best practices that educators around the nation had found to improve learning.
The 28-story tower on the edge of downtown Frankfort was the home to the state Department of Education during those heady years of education reform.
Emboldened by a judge who ruled that the state’s old system of educating children was unconstitutional because it left districts in poor counties chronically underfunded and students woefully unprepared for jobs or trade school or college, Kentucky’s legislators showed rare backbone and did what they hadn’t done since 1968 — they voted to raise the state’s sales tax from 5 to 6 percent to bring in $1.3 billion more dollars to help the poor districts.
But piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit, many parts of the reform was dismantled.
A couple of recessions withered the funding stream.
Financial rewards for teachers in schools that did well on student tests were among the first to go.
A funding formula that sent more money to poorer districts was scrapped.
The KIRIS essay tests that were designed to determine exactly what the students were learning were abandoned and ultimately replaced by standardized testing.
The school councils, made up of parents and educators, were stripped of power. Nepotism rules were relaxed. While family resource centers are still around, the network of them isn’t as robust as envisioned.
Last month, Capital Plaza was imploded, brought down in just a few seconds by powerful controlled blasts that ripped through the building, making way for a new office campus.
On April 17, it took Gov. Matt Bevin’s newly appointed Kentucky Board of Education about 31 hours to knock down one of the last remaining pillars and potentially the most important pillar of the reform effort: the attempt to create an educational system that is walled off from the political whims of the day.
Let me be clear, Bevin’s move here in naming people to the board who agree with him on education issues was legal and, in fact, was expected. Any governor would do what he did.
But the question is whether the board’s decision to force out commissioner Stephen Pruitt — the day after Bevin’s appointees were given all the power — was wise or in the best interests of Kentucky.
When Pruitt was forced to resign last week, newly elected school board chairman Milton Seymore couldn’t give a coherent explanation as to why Pruitt was let go other than to say the new board wants to go in a different direction.
The board acknowledged that it could not fire Pruitt “for cause,” meaning that he really hasn’t done anything wrong.
He had been working for twoand a-half years to methodically fix what is wrong with Kentucky’s schools, undertaking an audit of Jefferson County Public Schools that apparently was going to recommend that the state assist the district — which Bevin has called a “disaster” and an “absolute unmitigated mess” — but stop short of calling for a takeover of the district.
What Pruitt’s ouster means for the future of an independent Jefferson County system, for the future of education and for the future of the controversial student assignment plan is unclear.
But what is clear is that the energy at the state level is now on charter schools. Numerous of the Bevin appointees are outspoken supporters of the concept, as is newly appointed acting superintendent Wayne Lewis, a University of Kentucky professor.
That’s concerning because there are 1,233 public schools in Kentucky – none of them charters because none are operating in Kentucky – working hard to educate students every day.
If the school board loses focus on our public schools, it could bring the entire constitutionally mandated public education system down in a heap, just like the old Capital Plaza.
Let’s hope that’s not the plan.
Joseph Gerth is an opinion columnist for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, where this column originally appeared.