The Kentucky General Assembly held a robust debate earlier this year that resulted in a divide on the topic of public charter schools.
Spirited debate can result in better public policy, especially when discussions focus on the shared goal of what is best for children. Lawmakers on both sides affirmed three decades of educational progress in the Bluegrass State, while acknowledging that achievement gaps among historically under-served students and their more advantaged peers persist.
When the gavel dropped on the last day of the session, Kentucky became the 44th state to embrace public charter schools.
Now, policymakers, educators, administrators, and charter authorizers must turn to the important work of ensuring that Kentucky’s charter schools are high quality — based on evidence of what we know works — and publicly accountable for results. Public charter schools, or any school, must be held to the highest standards to provide the excellent education that every Kentucky child deserves.
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As the state pursues regulations that will guide implementation, there are a few priorities that everyone should watch closely:
▪ Authorizers, accountability and oversight: Research affirms the importance of authorizers who have been trained to ensure charter schools meet high standards, such as those outlined by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Kentucky authorizers should set clear performance expectations for increasing student achievement and closing opportunity and achievement gaps from the very start. Following a rigorous application process, authorizers must provide careful oversight of charter schools’ academic and operational performance. And, over time, charter schools that fail to meet the ambitious vision set forth in the new legislation and in their authorizing agreements should be closed so that communities can pursue other innovative options for student success.
Authorizing is an area where Kentucky can learn from the challenges and successes of other states.
For example, a 2016 report from The Education Trust Midwest shows that, without rigorous oversight, Michigan has allowed charter authorizers with devastatingly poor performance to continue operating. As a result, thousands and thousands of Michigan children attend failing charter schools.
On the spectrum’s other end, Massachusetts has some of the highest-performing charter schools in the country. Under the strong system in place in Massachusetts, charter authorizers set a high bar for opening and running charter schools and hold the schools accountable for results.
Research shows that positive outcomes occur when accountability is strong. Charter schools in Boston produce large increases in student academic performance in math and English language arts, and a recent analysis from the Brookings Institution reveals that one year in a Boston charter erases roughly a third of the racial achievement gap between black and white students. The same analysis showed Boston charters increased students’ SAT scores and doubled the likelihood of students taking an Advanced Placement exam.
▪ Diversity in enrollment: Kentucky’s charter law prohibits discrimination based on ability, performance, geography, socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity. The law also requires charter schools to provide full services to students with learning disabilities.
This enrollment strategy will ensure that students of various backgrounds and experiences can learn in diverse classrooms together. Diversity is a hallmark of a strong education system. And a great deal of research shows the benefits of diversity in our schools.
The Century Foundation has found that diversity can increase empathy and reduce bias. And it can lead to improved outcomes for all students, with powerful benefits for students from low-income families. The Century Foundation’s analyses have shown that, compared to peers who attend higher-poverty schools, low-income students in diverse schools perform better academically. Diversity also prepares our students to compete in a global, multicultural economy.
Maintaining a commitment to diversity in the implementation of public charter schools is important for Kentucky’s continued progress. More than 100 school districts and charter schools across the country are working to increase the diversity of schools by using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment.
▪ Funding: Kentucky ranks in the bottom third of the nation for its funding of K-12 schools. While the federal Charter Schools Program is a potential resource for Kentucky’s charter schools, state and local leaders should ensure that these new schools — and all public schools — receive the necessary state and local public investment to achieve desired and bold goals for student success.
▪ Collaboration: It will be critical to encourage collaboration among public charter schools and traditional public schools to build community support for all schools and to share best practices in teaching and learning.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University and the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell have been studying the relationship between traditional district schools and charters for years. Kentucky should inform its approach to charter schools using such studies to ensure that charter models are adopted that effectively serve students, parents and families, communities and the state. Collaboration has been a hallmark of education policy in Kentucky for years and should be leveraged now as well.
Even with the advent of public charter schools, virtually all of Kentucky’s 680,000 students will continue to be educated in traditional public schools. As a result, everyone with a stake in the education of Kentucky’s children must recommit to rigorous accountability and adequate resources for the entire public education system with the aim of increasing success for all students.
It is up to all of us to ensure a system of public education — charter and traditional public schools alike — that serves all students and that moves Kentucky ever closer to leading the nation in educational excellence and equity. Kentucky’s kids can’t wait.
John B. King Jr. is president and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students. Brigitte Blom Ramsey is executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, non-partisan citizens’ advocacy group founded in 1983.