Bevin appointees push state education board on charter schools

Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner said the state school board should study options for charter schools.
Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner said the state school board should study options for charter schools. Herald-Leader File Photo.

Gov. Matt Bevin’s push for charter schools in Kentucky gained ground Wednesday when his appointees were among those who pressed the Kentucky Board of Education to call a work session in November to help members develop a position.

Currently, 43 states have legislation that allows charter schools, but Kentucky does not. Kentucky Board of Education members want to develop a position in advance of the 2017 General Assembly.

House Democrats in Kentucky’s legislature have previously blocked charter school legislation. Charter schools can be public or private and can take different forms. Legislation that the House blocked in 2016 called for a pilot program in Fayette and Jefferson counties. That legislation said that charter schools would be part of the state’s system of public education, but the schools would be exempt from some laws and regulations applicable to the state board of education and local school districts. Charter schools would have been tuition-free and non-profit with no religious affiliation under that proposal.

A date for the November special meeting of the state school board has not been set. The board’s need to take a position on charter schools was raised Wednesday at its regular meeting in Frankfort by Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner, appointed by Bevin, and a new member who had been appointed to the board by Bevin.

Heiner asked the board, in addition to having a work session on public charter schools, to take 48 hours and travel outside Kentucky and visit charter schools and to bring in national experts on charter schools.

He said Kentucky needs public charter schools to help struggling students who are included in the achievement gap as evidenced by the recent release of statewide test scores. Heiner said charter schools are an alternative to public schools with poor academic performance.

“We are 20 years late,” he said.

“It would be foolish on our part not to consider a tool that is being used in 43 other states,” said Gary Houchens of Bowling Green, a Bevin appointee. Houchens said a low performing charter school could be closed.

The state school board will vote on legislative priorities in December.

Sam Hinkle, a school board member appointed by former Gov. Steve Beshear, also pressed to get the topic on the board’s agenda. Hinkle told the Herald-Leader Thursday that he wanted to determine what was best for children.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said he wasn’t sure that everyone was defining charter schools the same and that the board needed to have a broader conversation. He said charter schools can be effective but he’s not ready to say they are the only answer to closing achievement gaps between minority, low-income and disabled students and other students.

“I think we need to look at all of the options for school improvement,” Pruitt said. “I’ve seen charters done well and not so well, so I don’t think that they are necessarily a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems with the achievement gap. However, we do need to consider a variety of tools in our utility belt for closing the opportunity and achievement gaps as well as the continuous improvement of all of our schools.”

As he had recently said at an Urban League dinner in Lexington, Pruitt said that he is focused on closing Kentucky’s achievement gap. “I’m not willing to let Kentucky continue with the achievement gap that we have,” he said.

On Wednesday, state school board member Grayson Boyd said he had heard about good charter schools and about “nightmares.”

Board chairman Bill Twyman said board members didn’t have enough information at this point to make a solid decision. Twyman and Pruitt suggested the special meeting.

Also, after one year in his role as commissioner, the state board gave Pruitt some performance goals based on his recent self-evaluation..

Board members said Pruitt emphasized equity for students and that he was accessible, credible and had established relationships on both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly. They said he had a strong policy for developing a new accountability system.

Board members asked Pruitt to set goals that included strengthening his connection with higher education and early childhood education officials, increasing visits to schools and districts, increasing his use of social media; and paring down the amount of content in weekly emails.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears