House Education Committee approves bill to improve poor-performing schools

02/26/2015 09:45 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation aiming to turn around persistently low-performing schools narrowly passed the House Education Committee Thursday, with a Democrat changing his vote to advance the bill.

House Bill 498, sponsored by Rep. Derrick Graham, cleared the committee 17-3-2. Voting initially stalled at 16-3-3 with 17 supporters needed for approval, but Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, switched from a “pass” to send HB 498 to the House floor.

The legislation would create a class of targeted focus schools. There were nearly 300 focus schools — high schools with graduation rates below 80 percent for two consecutive years, schools with achievement gaps in the bottom 10 percent or those with poor test scores — in the state during the 2013-14 school year, but only 35 schools would qualify as targeted if HB 498 is enacted, Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said.

Schools would qualify for targeted status if they remain focus schools for three straight years with below-average achievement-gap scores that haven’t improved in three years, according to the bill.

KDE would establish an audit process to evaluate the low-performing schools and draft an internal action plan, said Graham, a Frankfort Democrat and chairman of the education panel.

The audit would evaluate the school’s function, determine the ability of district leadership to improve targeted focus schools and recommend ways to boost student learning, and auditors could recommend additional training for leaders or suggest the principal’s termination, according to the bill.

Schools would be removed from targeted focus status when they no longer meet those criteria for two years under the bill.

“What this does, basically, is give the school district the opportunity to become creative and be innovative in terms of turning that focus school around,” Graham said.

Holliday said HB 498 would allow the state to intervene earlier in struggling schools and might help Kentucky get an extension on its No Child Left Behind Waiver. School districts would pay for the audits, which cost about $12,000 each, Holliday said, noting he expects districts would have federal funds to cover the expenses.

Some on the panel, however, expressed misgivings about parts of the measure.

House Minority Whip Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, said he appreciated the intent of HB 498, but the legislation will cost the state an estimated $12.4 million to implement, not including what districts would spend for audits. He said he expected to bill to wind up in the House budget committee given its fiscal impact.

“I understand it’s federal dollars, but if you’re going to take federal dollars and take them from one thing and move them to something else, something’s going to suffer along the way,” he said.

Rep. Cluster Howard has seen his district’s Breathitt County Schools under the state’s purview since 2012 amid poor test schools and financial troubles, not to mention the two-year sentence of the district’s former superintendent on federal vote-buying charges.

Howard, D-Jackson, said he has not seen much improvement at the district after the state’s takeover. In fact, teachers’ morale has eroded since 2012, he said.

“I’m concerned as Rep. Nelson is about the morale of the teachers in this state, and that has to be addressed,” he said. “And I don’t think throwing a lot of money at it is going to help it, but if you’re going to use money we need to use it effectively.”


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