Bert Combs and the Council for Better Education: Catalysts for School Reform
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Bert Combs and the Council for Better Education:
Catalysts for School Reform

Generating support for an efficient system of common schools has been a serious problem throughout the history of Kentucky. The General Assembly has been content to allow Kentucky schools to rank among the least supported in the nation. But the struggle for adequately funded public schools got a major boost when the Kentucky Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education (1989), declaring that a good education is the fundamental right of every child. 1

The activities of the Council for Better Education were part of a national effort to determine a set of standards for equitable and adequate school funding that could be used by the courts. Equity is a question of whether school funds are distributed to Kentucky [End Page 27] school districts in a relatively balanced fashion. Adequacy is an issue of whether schools have the resources necessary to meet the goals set by the state.

In earlier times, when good jobs were available to less-educated citizens and Kentucky's educational goals were low, minimal funding may well have provided an adequate education for most citizens. But an adequate education is not a fixed standard. As society grew more technologically advanced, low-skill jobs evaporated, and the competitive demands of a global marketplace required a greater percentage of highly educated Kentuckians. The demands placed on the schools increased significantly. An adequate education for all Kentucky children, as required by law, is a very high standard in the twenty-first century.

Kentucky educators were not alone in their struggle for better schools. An initial wave of federal litigation emerged in the late 1960s to challenge state systems of school finance. But plaintiffs seeking to provide equitable public schools were frustrated in their attempts to use the U.S. Constitution as a basis to overturn state funding schemes. Initially, federal courts seemed sympathetic to plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claims that unequal schools denied students "equal protection of the law" and were therefore unconstitutional. But the court was frustrated by a lack of standards that judges might use to determine whether or not a state legislature had provided equitable schooling. 2 In California, a 1971 victory in Serrano v. Priest offered plaintiffs hope, but it was short-lived. 3

By 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court had closed the door to any further Fourteenth Amendment claims in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. 4 A second wave of equity cases, based on education [End Page 28] clauses in state constitutions, shifted litigation to the state courts. 5

In Kentucky, a group of public-school administrators formed the Council for Better Education and won a landmark decision. Former governor Bert Combs served as lead counsel for the plaintiffs and employed a new approach that focused on both equity and adequacy. His legal strategy launched a third wave of American school-finance litigation that was modeled nationally.

The Kentucky Supreme Court, in Rose v. Council for Better Education (1989), defined the constitutional mandate by declaring the "fundamental right" of every child in the commonwealth to an adequate education. The court also reaffirmed the exclusive responsibility of the General Assembly for providing an efficient system of common schools and broadly defined the elements of that system.

In the end, the Kentucky Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Robert Stephens, declared the entire system of schools unconstitutional, which led to the most sweeping education reform in Kentucky history. It is difficult to say exactly where any movement toward change actually begins. Every action has its antecedents. But by the 1920s, fiscal inequities between city schools and rural schools were well documented. The 1920 General Assembly created the Kentucky Education Commission to study the schools. In its report, the commission made a strong plea for more adequate funding, arguing that "the tide of prosperity does not rise in countries that pay little for education; it rises in those that pay much." 6

The commission argued for the "elimination of educational inequities which arise chiefly from the differences in the amount of taxable wealth in different sections of the state, as well as in different...