Charter schools would be an option for parents seeking the best educational fit for their children, most proponents believe. But those who oppose charters believe the schools will suck money from an already financially strapped public school system.
Last week I spoke with Wayne D. Lewis, board chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association who wants Kentucky to become the 43rd state to welcome charter schools.
This week, I spoke with Jessica Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association, the local teachers union, who opposes charter schools.
"Charter schools have not lived up to (the promise of) higher achievement for our kids," Hiler said.
Instead, because federal, state and local money follows the student, a child enrolling in a charter school would take money from the existing system, she said.
Charters are public schools, but independently managed. So, buses to traditional schools would still have to roll even while carrying fewer students, Hiler said. Buildings would still need maintenance and upkeep even though the pool of money to operate them would shrink.
But isn't that same scenario true for students going to private schools in Fayette County? Aren't those students siphoning money from the system? Didn't they leave because the traditional public school lacked something they wanted or needed?
Black and poor kids tend to do better academically in charter schools. In traditional public schools, the achievement gap for black, Hispanic and poor kids is growing. Clearly those kids are not receiving the same education as others in the system. Are they just supposed to stay with the system, undereducated, in order for a building to have a nice roof?
Public school teachers are doing the best they can with limited resources, Hiler said.
"As public school educators, it is our responsibility" to teach all children, she said. "It is every teacher's want and hope that we close those achievement gaps sooner rather than later."
Well, it looks as though later is winning.
"I sure don't know what the magic wand or magic pill is," she said.
I don't either.
Some charters are better than traditional schools and some are worse. The rest are about the same.
Besides, Hiler said, Fayette County public schools have already come up with innovative programs to attract students and parents who are seeking a different education model.
"We already do much of the same things that charter schools want to do," Hiler said.
Students can apply for a variety of magnet schools and special programs such as the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy; the Locust Trace AgriScience Center; The Learning Center at Linlee; and the Carter G. Woodson Academy.
Each of those has a special appeal and many have waiting lists, indicating a student or parental desire for something new.
And if parents want more autonomy for their schools, Hiler said, they could join the site-based councils or advisory councils which are set up to decide the schools' direction.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of councils that still choose to meet when most parents are at work. I don't think that is a viable alternative to the autonomy of charters and their governing councils which would be designed to follow a specific path.
Another reason charter schools are a bad idea, Hiler said, is that they sometimes hire inexperienced teachers, or teachers with alternative certifications. And the turnover of teachers in charters is worse than the turnover in traditional public schools.
"It's really hard to get any momentum with that type of turnover," she said.
But couldn't all those requirements be put in the legislation that would allow Kentucky to establish charter schools? Couldn't the mistakes that have occurred in the 42 states that have already created charter schools be avoided in our state with a well-thought-out and worded law?
Another problem, Hiler said, is that charters can kick out difficult students and send them back to the traditional system. Don't we have a special school for children who have behavior problems? Isn't that kicking the kids to the curb?
If the traditional public school has failed to close the achievement gap, if poor and minority students are being underserved in the current system, why should we force them to stay?
If they left, say, and went to a charter school that focused on their needs, that taught them in a different style that clicked, wouldn't we all benefit? Teachers in traditional settings wouldn't have to blame the child's circumstances for his or her failure, and the child might find a place where learning is fun again.
We don't know because the legislation has been supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, causing it to be bogged down in the General Assembly.
"Instead of dividing," Hiler said, "we need to get on the same page and move toward the same goal."
We all agree the gap needs to be closed, so let's do it. Not in a few years. Now.
I'm not married to the charter school concept, but if the gap doesn't shrink soon, then the doors ought to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. If that is charter schools, then fine. If there is some other model, then let's go with that.
What we have, despite the wants and desires of teachers, is not working. Something has to change.
I'll speak with a third, unbiased party next week.