After Republican leaders reached an agreement on a bill to allow charter schools in Kentucky for the first time, the state House of Representatives approved the legislation Friday.
Lawmakers in the House debated the bill for about three hours, some with tearful stories about their life experiences. The vote was 56-39.
The legislation now goes to the state Senate.
House Bill 520, backed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, originally allowed only local school boards to approve an unlimited number of charter schools.
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An amendment from Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, would let mayors of Lexington and Louisville approve charter schools.
Denials of applications could be appealed to the Kentucky Board of Education.
Democratic lawmakers say that the revised bill was being rushed through on Friday and that their concerns were ignored.
But Rep. John Carney R-Campbellsville, sponsor of House Bill 520 and chairman of the House Education Committee, said during a committee meeting Friday morning that there were no tricks played.
Bevin, who spoke to the committee, said, “The argument that this is somehow a threat to our public education system is a lie … it’s a scare tactic.
“I'm personally disgusted by the fact that the people who oppose this so adamantly continue at every turn in between texting to be passionate about power, about money, about the transfer of dollars,” he said.
“It's not about the students to anyone of those that are opposing this bill. At the end of the day this is about educating the young people in Kentucky.”
Carney, a Taylor County educator, called charter schools “extensions of traditional public schools.”
Proponents say charter schools are an answer to closing the achievement gap prevalent with children of color, low income and disabled children.
In public charter schools, an organizer would enter into a performance-based contract, or charter, with an oversight board or entity that spells out the school’s governance, funding, accountability and flexibility. For profit and non-profit groups could organize charter schools. A public charter school would be part of the state’s system of public education. But public charter schools would be exempt from state school laws and regulations, except the same health, safety, civil rights, and disability rights as public schools.
Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, who voted against the bill, asked Bevin during the committee meeting if he has financial interests in charter schools. He said no. She said he could prove that by releasing his taxes.
“This is a sad day for Kentucky citizens,” she said.
Prior to the full House vote, the House Education Committee approved the bill 12-8. All the no votes were from Democrats, with the exception of Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson.
Later as the debate continued in the House of Representatives, State Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who was instrumental in passing major education reforms in 1990 that prevail currently, became teary in a floor speech when he spoke of Kentucky students facing challenges.
Richards, who has voiced opposition to charter schools, said he was concerned that the bill didn’t require state-certified teachers, but Carney assured him the bill would be clarified so that certification would be required. Several Democratic lawmakers questioned the bill in House floor speeches.
Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, said charter schools would suck the life’s blood out of public schools and called the legislation “barbaric.”
Lawmakers opposing the bill said charter schools would take money away from public schools that are underfunded. Proponents said that charter schools would give students and parents equal choices to families who have enough money to send their children to private schools.
State Rep. Robert Benvenuti III, R-Lexington, spoke in favor of the bill and said kids are doing better in states that have charter schools. Forty-three other states allow charter schools. Benvenuti criticized Fayette County Schools for hiring a lobbyist. District officials had several concerns, including that charter schools are approved and overseen by local school boards.
The bill approved Friday represents compromises.
Language that would require the General Assembly to approve funding appears to have been stripped out.
In odd-year sessions, lawmakers must have 60 votes in the House to pass laws appropriating funds. Carney had previously said that the vote on the bill would be close.
Carney said a provision in the bill that would allow “virtual” charter schools — a public charter school that offers educational services primarily or completely through an online program — was deleted from the bill.
Also, districts could decide whether to provide transportation to charter schools under the bill. If districts don’t want to provide transportation, government money for transportation of charter school students will stay with the charter schools.
Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, was among those speaking against the bill in the House panel meeting. She became emotional as she said educators were opposed to the bill and the legislation gave them little say.