As superintendent of Dayton Independent, Jack Moreland (pictured then and now) helped lead the 1984 lawsuit against the Kentucky General Assembly. Moreland is now president of SouthBank partners, an economic development agency for Northern Kentucky’s riverfront. (Archive photo courtesy of the Kenton County Library)
Jack Moreland had been expecting a call on the morning of June 8, 1989. It had been six months and one day since the Dayton Independent superintendent had watched an attorney representing his and 65 other school districts ask the Kentucky Supreme Court to force the state to adequately fund public education.
But when Moreland’s phone rang, he was surprised at what the attorney, former Gov. Bert Combs, told him.
“Jack, we went after a thimble full and we got a tub full,” Moreland recalled Combs saying that morning.
In a far-reaching opinion, the Supreme Court not only agreed with the school districts but declared Kentucky’s entire system of common schools unconstitutional.
“They ruled every single law pertaining to education unconstitutional,” Moreland said recently, “not just the finance piece.”
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Rose v. Council for Better Education decision which led to the transformation of Kentucky public education. At the time, Edweek noted that no state or federal court decision had ever issued such a sweeping order in a school funding case. Since then, the decision has been regarded as a turning point in school finance and has been cited by courts across the country, including in the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2017 decision that the state’s education funding was not adequate.
In his 101-page decision, Chief Justice Robert Stephens told the Kentucky legislature to start from scratch to create a public education system that could meet the state constitutional mandate of an “efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”
That system must be adequately funded by the state, Stephens wrote.
“Each child, every child, in this Commonwealth must be provided with an equal opportunity to have an adequate education,” he wrote. “Equality is the key word here. The children of the poor and the children of the rich, the children who live in the poor districts and the children who live in the rich districts must be given the same opportunity and access to an adequate education. This obligation cannot be shifted to local counties and local school districts.”
The Supreme Court’s decision gave the legislature about a year to create and fund a new system. During the next legislative session, state lawmakers created the Kentucky Education Reform Act, designed to meet that challenge. But at the time, no one knew what would happen, Moreland said.
“We had worked toward this day for so long, I don’t think we fully comprehended what it would take if something like this were to have happened,” Moreland said. “I think we were all just kind of looking at one another and saying what do we do now.”