FRANKFORT — Kentucky might have to find new ways of turning around badly failing schools — including the option of converting them into charter-like schools — to get all the federal money it hopes to receive under the $4.35 billion "Race To The Top" program, a state education official said Monday.
David Cook, the state department of education's advisor and project manager for the federally funded program, said that the guidelines might require states to at least have the ability to create charter-like schools in situations where traditional schools are badly failing their students.
The guidelines might be released this week, said Cook, who discussed the situation Monday at the fall meeting of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
"Race To The Top" is intended to reward and encourage states with innovative education programs for improving student outcomes, raising graduation rates and helping prepare students for college and careers. It is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States must compete for grants.
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Charter schools generally are defined as schools created to operate independently of the public school system, the idea being that they are free to tailor programs to community needs. Kentucky has no charter schools, and there are no state laws on the books to allow their creation.
Cook stressed that no blanket, statewide charter-school program is being contemplated. Efforts would be aimed at the state's lowest performing schools, probably the bottom 5 percent, he said.
It's unclear just what a charter-like school might look like. But Cook said that it might be possible to convert a failing traditional school into such an institution simply by altering the way school-based councils operate.
"I think the way we're looking at it is that we'd probably have to modify at least some pieces of our school council legislation to allow for governance changes in these ...schools," he said. "We're thinking in terms of turn-around legislation, rather than charter-school legislation."
It all depends on what "Race For The Top" application guidelines say, Cook stressed.
But, he said, education officials expect that 'Race To The Top" will require "a very much more extreme model of intervention than we've ever used."
Such steps might range from replacing a school's staff, closing the school and distributing students among nearby schools, or replacing it with a new charter-like school, Cook said.
"I think it's more about the freedom and flexibility the school has to do things differently in terms of instruction and not being tied to some statutes and regulations," he said. "In any case, they still would have to follow our content standards, be under the same accountability model.
"But they would be freed from some of the rules about how they report, how they're governed."
Again, details are unclear.
"I think that when we get the final guidance (from "Race To The Top"), it will tell us to what extent we have to make modifications to our current law," he said.
According to Cook, education officials want to work quickly with state education leaders once guidelines are released, so that legislation could be prepared to pre-file for the 2010 General Assembly. Speed is important, he said, because Kentucky probably would have to file its "Race To The Top" application before legislation actually is passed.