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Charter schools gaining momentum

FRANKFORT — A potential compromise that would allow charter schools in Kentucky is gaining momentum in the Capitol and could even help resolve an impasse over the state budget.

Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday that he wants to explore the possibility of adding a proposal to allow charter schools to the agenda of a special legislative session to craft a state budget.

"I'm willing to have some conversations to see if there may be some way to come to some agreement on that," he said.

Beshear also said he will consider asking lawmakers to fix the state's bankrupt unemployment insurance fund and raise the state's dropout age from 16 to 18 during the special session, which is expected to happen next month. Those issues were discussed in the 60-day regular session that ended last week but were not approved.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers could potentially benefit by compromising on education issues. Senate Republicans have long sought charter schools, while House Democrats desperately want to replace public schools in the worst physical condition, commonly called Category 5 and Category 4 schools.

In the legislative session that concluded last week without a two-year state spending plan, the Senate refused to approve the new debt necessary to replace decrepit schools while the House ignored legislation that would allow charter schools.

If the two sides compromised, it would also help the state in its attempt to nab $175 million in Race to the Top federal funding to implement a new statewide curriculum and testing system over the next few years.

State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said Tuesday he does not think Kentucky will receive any Race to the Top funds without charter schools.

"West Virginia is looking at a special session on charters. Connecticut is really pushing hard. So is North Carolina. We think there are 12 states that really will be competitive, and I don't think they are going to count but about eight," Holliday said.

Kentucky's initial application for $175 million from Race to the Top didn't win mainly because it lacks charter-school legislation, which potentially could have given Kentucky up to 32 points more on its application and guaranteed a share of the $4.35 billion program, Holliday said.

Charter schools are granted special permits, or charters, that allow them to operate outside usual state regulations in an attempt to help students who otherwise would have to attend low-performing schools.

Holliday said he "would definitely support the idea of charters being included in the special session, but I will leave that decision to Governor Beshear."

Beshear said alternative schools can be a useful tool to help some school districts "if we utilized them properly."

"How you go about that and how you are going to get this accomplished — money is going to be difficult — will require the support of education establishments if we are going to get this done."

Kentucky Education Association President Sharron Oxendine said her group opposed the bill in this year's General Assembly that set up charter schools "with the caveat that we would be willing to sit down and talk to make the bill better."

She said KEA's primary concern is state employee health care. "Maybe something could be worked out," she said.

The priority for the governor, who is the only one who can call a special session and set its agenda, is the state budget.

Beshear asked Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo on Monday to meet with him to try to resolve the budget impasse.

The Democratic governor said he wants to have a special session "as soon as possible and get it over with."

He said he hopes the session will not last longer than five days, which would cost taxpayers about $64,000 a day. He added that he agrees with Williams that it would be "a great idea" for lawmakers to forgo their salaries in a special session.

Adding items to the session's agenda could complicate the session, Beshear said.

"All of that has to be evaluated before I make a decision to include anything else."

The governor said it would be "fine with me" to have the session before the May 18 primary elections in which all 100 House seats and 19 of the state Senate seats are up for grabs.

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