2010 General Assembly

Race to the Top application, without charter schools, ready for Beshear's signature

jwarren@herald-leader.comJanuary 14, 2010 

FRANKFORT — Kentucky's application for millions in federal Race To The Top dollars apparently will go to Washington next week without any provision for converting failing schools into charter schools.

An effort that would have added charter schools to the state's application died Wednesday on a tie vote in the state Senate Education Committee.

Backers contended that including charter schools would have strengthened Kentucky's Race application by offering an extra option for turning around struggling schools — those with consistently low test scores. But opponents argued just the opposite, saying that making such a major, potentially controversial change at the last minute could weaken the application by threatening what has been unanimous support from Kentucky's 174 public school districts.

A key blow might have come from Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who told education committee members Wednesday that Jefferson County — the state's largest school district — "definitely" would withdraw its support if charter schools were included. Jefferson has seven struggling schools.

With the charter schools amendment dead, the Senate Education Committee quickly approved House Bill 176, a measure essential to Kentucky's Race To The Top application, making only a few technical changes. Minutes later, the full Senate unanimously approved HB 176, and the state House concurred soon afterward.

That apparently clears the way for Kentucky education officials to hand deliver the state's Race To The Top application in Washington next Tuesday, the filing deadline. Kentucky is asking for $200 million.

Gov. Steve Beshear issued a statement Wednesday praising the House and Senate education chairmen — Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, and state Sen. Ken Winters R-Murray — for quick passage of HB 176.

"The legislature's prompt work and bipartisan support shows that when we cooperate, Kentucky moves ahead," the governor said.

The bill is expected to be ready for Beshear's signature on Thursday.

Meanwhile, however, the book on charter schools still might not be closed.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Wednesday he was glad that the effort to insert charter schools into the application had been defeated. But he said he thinks charters themselves should be explored further.

Rollins, however, said he questions whether charter schools would work in a state like Kentucky, saying they've been most successful in urban areas. The matter needs more study, he said.

Kentucky has no laws allowing for charter schools, which are schools that can receive public funds, but are managed independently. Supporters contend that allows charters to be more creative in raising student achievement.

State Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger, who proposed Wednesday's charter school amendment, said it could help turn around low-performing schools in Kentucky by allowing them to be converted into charter schools.

But, state Sens. Gerald Neal and Tim Shaughnessy, both D-Louisville, countered that the amendment as written could allow any Kentucky public school to be converted, not just schools with persistently poor performance.

The main debate, however, centered on whether including charters would help or harm the Race To The Top application, and by how much.

The federal government will judge states' applications based on a 500-point system, and officials have said that states will earn points if they have provisions for charter schools.

Holliday told Senate committee members Wednesday that Westwood's charter proposal might give Kentucky 15 or more points. But he noted that having support for the application from all 174 state school districts could be worth up to 65 points. Holliday further warned that some of those points could disappear if the inclusion of charter schools prompted school districts — like Jefferson — to withdraw their support.

A vote on the charter schools amendment then produced a six-six tie. Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, joined five Democrats in voting against the proposal. All six votes for the amendment came from Republicans.

Kerr said afterward that she was not opposed to charter schools, but feared that the amendment could have jeopardized Kentucky's Race application.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.

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