Defective SBDM policy foils education reforms

Published 8:11 pm Tuesday, February 5, 2019


Guest Columnist

Parents and voters probably don’t realize how much control teachers through School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils have in running schools and how little real clout belongs to elected board members and the superintendents they hire and are responsible for holding accountable.

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Teachers pick their own bosses while elected boards and superintendents are prohibited under threat of sanctions from attempting to influence schools’ staffing, curriculum or financial decisions.

Kentuckians with even a pinch of common sense must – or at least should – be wondering: How is it that local school-board members and superintendents must sit on their hands in absolute silence if councils make poor choices leading to weaker performances for children, especially in the face of widening academic-achievement gaps, artificially inflated high school graduation rates and multitudes of freshmen entering college with sufficient academic deficiencies?

Then, there’s the fact that parents form only a minority of SBDM councils’ membership. Teachers, by law, must always comprise the majority membership of each council.

This portion of the policy, which was part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), was a bone thrown to teachers’ unions to ensure their members and interests remained firmly in control.

Talk about eliminating all residue of accountability and preventing effective action when a school staff’s culture isn’t performing well for students!

A realistic path opens for holding an SBDM council accountable only when its school sinks all the way to the very bottom of the performance-failure heap.

Recently, the well-regarded Boone County Schools ran afoul of SBDM dictates when several of the district’s schools adopted a massive digital learning curriculum without their councils taking proper actions to approve the programs or align the California-developed materials with Kentucky’s academic standards.

Superintendent Randy Poe and two of the district’s principals wound up getting sanctioned by the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA).

None of the SBDM councils’ members, however, were admonished despite standing by without properly acting to prevent the ultimate drama caused by the execution of sanctions.

This turn of events clearly reveals that the SBDM approach toward governing schools continues to cause ongoing confusion nearly three decades after it was forced on unsuspecting Kentucky parents, students, superintendents and board members by KERA.

The dysfunction continually generated by SBDM policy is highlighted by the OEA’s reports on the Boone County sanctions.

While Kentucky law allows only local school boards to negotiate contracts for educational necessities like textbooks and software, its SBDM policy creates a terribly confusing situation whereby board members are forced to sign contracts for curriculum products even if they don’t believe the purchases are in the best interests of their district’s students.

Such nonsense trespasses on the long-standing American principle of allowing individuals to avoid violating their consciences and perhaps even of a taxation-without-representation policy.

The state Senate has taken a bite out of the SBDM-reform apple by approving changes that would restore some rationality to school governance, including returning to superintendents the authority to hire principals.

Critics trying to stop the House from acting charge that the Senate legislation doesn’t account for poorly performing superintendents.

The indictment doesn’t hold water, considering local school boards have the authority to remove failing superintendents and voters possess the power to replace board members who won’t act in students’ best interests.

Legislators should ask themselves whether it’s acceptable that parents, superintendents or even board members must stand by and watch districts decline because of bad cultures in their schools too often reflected in — rather than changed by — the councils that run them.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.