Reforming Kentucky

With an abysmal reputation in education, Kentucky was ripe territory for education reformists and their current fads in the late 1980s. We were perhaps the first state to have our education system declared unconstitutional and thrown out by the state supreme court.

It remains curious how our court could adjudicate education philosophy, but it did in June of 1989 and ordered our General Assembly to write the appropriate legislation.

A group of mothers such as myself, some of whom had education backgrounds, went to Frankfort in January of 1990 and lobbied against many aspects of the “reform” that came to be known by the acronym of KERA. Most of us had never lobbied before.

We quickly discovered the major print media would not be our ally in protecting our children and schools. The pro-KERA cheerleading from the large newspapers was relentless. There was also an organization calling itself the Pritchard Committee for Academic Excellence, a major misnomer, that received enormous grants of money from the Carnegie Foundation to be a “watchdog” over KERA. In addition, three corporations (UPS, Ashland Oil, and Humana) got behind the effort, thinking they were supporting an improvement in education.

So the task before us was not small. We lobbied every session, as well as during the interim. We wrote op-ed pieces for all the state’s print media, large and small. We used the open records act to obtain volumes of documents out of the Department of Education. We worked on building relationships with both legislators and bureaucrats. We networked with others who had problems with all or part of the reform. We worked in political campaigns to defeat those legislators who refused to listen to reason and common sense. In January of 1994, we held a rally on the capitol steps. In spite of it being a workday and a cold drizzle in the mountains of east Kentucky, there were almost a thousand protesters on the doorstep of the General Assembly as the legislators watched out the windows of the capitol.

Minor changes were made in 1994, but KERA remained intact. By 1996 many legislators had left office, several by defeat at the polls; but there were still pro-KERA officials in leadership positions. Had we been able to get anything to the floor for a vote, we could have changed KERA significantly. A mere handful of men kept KERA on life support.

While our apparent successes have been few, we have learned much in this seven-year battle for the future of our children and our state. We know that it is not helpful to think of our opposition as anti-children or anti-education. To participate in the debate, we must acknowledge that most of us have a common goal: knowledgeable students prepared to live and work in a free society. Our differences lie in the best path to reach that goal.

We also have come to appreciate the value of public opinion. The years of seemingly no success, despite negative reports, have yielded a public with no confidence in the reform. We were unknowingly “tilling the soil,” so that when the seeds of doubt were dropped, they could take root. Such seeds were helpful in the firing of our expensive testing company last June.

The 1998 General Assembly convened in January. We have a new Senate president who is not wedded to KERA. We have several new legislators, and we defeated KERA’s staunchest advocate at the polls. Our hopes for change run very high.


  • Donna Shedd

    At the time this article was published, Donna Shedd was a former teacher and school board member, citizen lobbyist on education issues, and vice president of Eagle Forum of Kentucky.

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