Representatives of a national education group met with African-American Lexington residents Monday, seeking grass-roots support for charter schools in Kentucky.
The state has no charter schools, and legislation allowing for their creation has gone nowhere in the Kentucky General Assembly. But the Washington-based Black Alliance for Educational Options and other organizations promoting educational choice contend that charters could provide valuable alternatives for minority and low-income parents who think traditional schools are failing their children.
"We are in crisis mode in terms of the education of our children," Black Alliance president Kenneth Campbell declared at Monday's session, citing estimates that half of black youths entering ninth grade this year won't finish high school. "How can we not explore this option, given what's going on with our kids?"
Another speaker, former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis, said that improving education is part of the unfinished business of the U.S. civil rights movement.
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"The biggest civil rights issue today is the education of our children," said Chavis, an adviser to the Black Alliance. "Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work."
About 40 black Lexington residents — including ministers, parents and educators — attended the roundtable discussion at the S.P. Rawlings Conference and Multipurpose Center. Afterward, Chavis, Campbell and other representatives of the Black Alliance for Educational Options traveled to Louisville for a similar meeting with residents there.
Charter schools are public institutions that are granted special permits or "charters," freeing them from many regulations that public schools must follow. Supporters contend that such freedom allows charters, if they're well run, to innovate and outperform many public schools.
Louisville, which has several of Kentucky's lowest-performing public schools, has been the center of charter-school interest in the state for several years. But supporters say that interest is increasing both in Lexington and in parts of Eastern Kentucky.
Organizers said Monday's meeting in Lexington was intended mainly to educate residents about what charter schools are and how they function.
Backers ultimately hope to raise enough statewide support to push a charter schools bill through the Kentucky General Assembly in 2012. Such measures have gained support in the Republican-controlled state Senate, but they've drawn scant interest in the Democratic House.
On Monday, Black Alliance officials blamed the House's cold shoulder mainly on opposition from teacher unions.
Wayne D. Lewis, an assistant education professor at the University of Kentucky and Lexington Outreach Coordinator for the Black Alliance, said the organization doesn't oppose public schools. But adding charters could benefit low-income and working-class families in Kentucky who are dissatisfied with their existing schools, he said.
"Middle class people have options already, either by choosing the neighborhoods and schools they want their kids to attend, or by using social capital to pull strings and get their kids where they want them to be," Lewis said. "But low-income and working-class people usually are forced to attend the schools where they live. Unfortunately, those usually are the low-performing schools."