Digging into Kentucky’s charter school law: 20 things you need to know

A new charter school division will be created at the Kentucky Department of Education, which is housed on Sower Boulevard in Frankfort.
A new charter school division will be created at the Kentucky Department of Education, which is housed on Sower Boulevard in Frankfort. File photo.

With Kentucky’s new charter school law scheduled to go into effect in June, education officials are fielding questions about what will happen as charter schools make their way into the state for the first time.

Here are some answers:

▪ The bill will become effective June 29.The next step will be for the Kentucky Board of Education to create regulations governing the implementation of the law. This process is expected to take at least six months. The Kentucky Department of Education is already working on draft regulations. There will be several opportunities for people to comment on the proposed regulations.

▪ Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said he will create a new branch of the Kentucky Department of Education to deal solely with charter schools. The Department of Education is hiring a small number of employees for a charter school division that will help applicants who want to start charter schools and local school boards and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville who will approve and oversee them as “authorizers.”

▪ Charter schools won’t be a new experience for some Kentucky state and local education officials. Pruitt was involved with charters through his various positions in leadership at the Georgia Department of Education. Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk said he had worked with charter schools in previous positions. Kentucky Board of Education member Ben Cundiff serves on the boards of two Nashville charter schools, according to his biographical information on the Kentucky Department of Education website.

▪ Once final regulations are approved and in place in late 2017 or early 2018, the application process for people to start charter schools will begin, Kentucky Department of Education officials said.

▪ The first charter school is not expected to open until the 2018-19 school year. The 2017-18 school year will be used by authorizers and charter applicants for planning, site acquisition and other processes.

▪  Kentucky’s public charter schools will not charge tuition.

▪ A charter school application must demonstrate the ability to provide service to at least 100 students.

▪ Under Kentucky’s new law, Pruitt said contracts between groups that want to start charter schools and the authorizers — local school boards and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville — will be extensive. Authorizers will approve or deny charter applications; enter into the charter contracts with applicants; oversee public charter schools, and decide to renew or revoke charter contracts.

▪ A local school district where a charter school is located must utilize state funds to support those students attending the charter. The school district can provide transportation or transportation dollars to the charter schools. If a local district chooses not to provide transportation for charter school students, then a proportionate amount of state funds are transferred to the charter school for funding transportation.

▪ Under the bill passed by the General Assembly, teachers, parents, school administrators, citizens, public organizations, non-profit organizations or a combination of those can apply to start a charter school. A charter management organization that the applicant brings in to help create the school has to have a proven record of success. One charter management organization, National Heritage Academies, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., spent $31,672 to lobby the 2017 General Assembly, The Courier-Journal reported. National Heritage Senior Communication Specialist Katie Baker told the Herald-Leader that company officials would like to work in Kentucky at the appropriate time.

▪ A charter contract will last for five years.The contracts can then be renewed for another three to five years. Pruitt said no one in the General Assembly or at the Kentucky Department of Education “wants to see bad schools of any kind.” Several states, including Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana and Tennessee have had problems with charter schools, according to media reports. “We're all going to have to have the intestinal fortitude to revoke one if they are not doing the right thing by kids,” Pruitt said.

▪ Charter schools will be part of the state education department accountability system.

▪ Public charter schools will be nonsectarian, have autonomy, be governed by an independent board of directors; be established and operated under the terms of a charter contract, and use a randomized admissions lottery if more students want to attend the school than the school has room for.

▪ Charter schools cannot solely be a “virtual” school. Joseph Waddington, assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation at the University of Kentucky, said that’s one of the strengths of Kentucky’s new law, in that there is limited empirical evidence on the virtual charter school’s effectiveness.

▪ School boards or the Lexington or Louisville mayor must solicit and evaluate applications, give preference to applicants wanting to serve at-risk or special needs students, conduct the review and interview process for all applications, and approve or deny applications within 60 days of receiving them.

▪ The Kentucky Board of Education can review an authorizer’s decision to approve, deny, renew or revoke a charter, and applicants can appeal a decision in circuit court.

▪ A public charter school must: ensure students meet state compulsory attendance requirements; hire only qualified teachers; ensure high school courses meet or exceed graduation requirements; design programs to meet or exceed state student performance standards, and ensure students' participation in state tests.

▪ The charter schools will have to adhere to all generally accepted accounting principles and adhere to the same financial audits as other public schools.

▪ Charter schools will have to use the same system for reporting student information and financial data as other school districts across the state; require criminal background checks for staff and volunteers, including members of its governing board; comply with open records and open meeting requirements, and provide instructional time that is at least equivalent to the student instructional year specified for public schools. They will have a school report card in the Kentucky Department of Education system, as public schools do.

▪ A local school district cannot assign or require any student to attend a public charter school. Traditional public school teachers can get a two-year leave of absence to teach at a charter. No district employee may be required to work in a charter school, and there is a prohibition on retaliation, discrimination or harassment of district employees involved in applying for a charter school position.

▪ Charter students will be eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities the same as traditional public school students, but there’s no obligation for a charter school to provide extracurricular activities or facilities for them. If a charter school has a sport, the student plays at the charter school for that sport. If the charter does not have any sports, student plays at traditional school where student would have been enrolled. If the charter offers one sport, but not others, students may not play at another school.

▪ An existing public school may be converted to a charter school if it is in the lowest five percent of all schools in the district and 60 percent of parents and guardians in the school petition to convert it; if it is not in the lowest five percent and 60 percent of parents and guardians petition to convert it and the local board also votes to convert; or the local school board votes to convert an existing school.

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