Can Kentucky charter schools have basketball teams? (And other burning questions)

Jasper Johnson, 11, played basketball with friends before a football game between Danville and Frederick Douglass at Admiral Stadium in Danville.
Jasper Johnson, 11, played basketball with friends before a football game between Danville and Frederick Douglass at Admiral Stadium in Danville.

When public charter schools open in Kentucky in the coming months, they will be under no obligation to provide sports and other extracurricular activities. But they can if they want to.

Students at Kentucky’s new charter schools will be allowed to participate in interscholastic sports and will have to follow Kentucky High School Athletic Association rules, state education officials told Fayette County School board members at a Dec. 4 meeting. School board members, who will have the new job of approving charter schools in Lexington, were given information about several aspects of charter school law.

Lexington students will be able to apply to any charter school in Fayette County regardless of what traditional public school their home is assigned to. But once they attend a charter school, that doesn’t mean they can play sports anywhere they want.

If a charter school offers a sport, a student has to play that sport at the charter school.

If the charter school doesn’t offer any sports, a student could play sports at the traditional district school where their home address is assigned.

But if a charter school only offers only one sport, such as basketball, and a student wants to play football or a sport not offered at their charter school, the student may not play that sport at another school, even the traditional school assigned to their home address.

The General Assembly put that rule in charter school law to discourage “basketball academy charter schools” and to encourage charter schools to either offer a whole menu of options, such as basketball, football and volleyball and baseball or offer no sports at all and focus on other things, said Kentucky Department of Education General Counsel Kevin Brown.

“We’ve been at the table on discussions of charters when they first came up,” KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett told the Herald-Leader this week. “The General Assembly members and the (state) department of education members have kept us informed. They don’t want to see people use what’s supposed to be a program to improve academics to somehow be a disguise for manipulation of athletics and that’s why we kind of called it an ‘all or nothing’ provision. Because there are people who would try to form a prep charter school and we’ve seen some abuses in other states.”

Athletics, said Tackett, is not the purpose of charters in Kentucky. “The purpose of charters here has been about a choice, particularly for people that need academic focus.” State officials did not want that purpose distracted by sports, said Tackett. “It’s pretty proactive thinking.”

State charter school director Earl Simms said in Missouri, where he previously worked, most high school charter schools and some middle schools offered athletic teams “because it is a big draw for students.”

Tackett said the KHSAA is ready for charter schools. “For us, it’s just another type of school. We already have six different types of schools” because of the various types of non-public schools in the state.

Tackett thinks there are safeguards in state law but said he will be watching for any problems, unintended consequences and changes that could allow manipulation.

His message for students and families: “Don’t let athletics be the reason” you go or don’t go to a charter school.

How will charter schools work in Fayette and other counties?

A charter school will come into existence when people put together an application and submit it to local school boards or the mayors of Lexington and Louisville. Applications are expected to start coming in to local school boards such as Fayette after state charter school regulations are finally approved about February 2018.

The responsibilities for the Fayette school board and others in Kentucky will include soliciting and evaluating applications and submitting approved charter applications to the Commissioner of Education for final approval.

School board members are being encouraged to give preference to applicants who want to serve at-risk or special needs students.

Single-gender charter schools will be permitted. A charter school could also be set up for students of more than one county, such as Fayette and Madison.

Public charter schools will have a certain level of autonomy from statutes and regulations.

But among the things they must do is comply with compulsory attendance, hire qualified, certified teachers, abide by generally accepted accounting procedures, participate in the state assessment, accountability and school report card, conduct criminal background checks on employees, abide by open meetings and open records laws and meet or exceed instructional time of traditional public schools.

Charter schools will be governed by an independent board of directors. Charter schools will have open enrollment and a randomized lottery if the student capacity has been met, Simms said.

Charter schools will be responsible for providing free and reduced priced lunches for students.

If a school board denies an application to open a charter school, the applicant can appeal to the state school board and the state school board can overrule the local board.

The local school board can shut down a charter school or convert a traditional school into a charter school under certain conditions.

Charter school state funding will be based on average daily attendance, as it is for traditional public schools. The Kentucky Board of Education is requesting the legislature establish a permanent funding formula for charter schools.

What if charter schools aren’t the answer?

Fayette school board members don’t think they are going to have a flood of charter schools in Lexington or a mass departure of students from traditional schools.

State education officials say they are learning from other states to create some of the best regulations in the country.

But board members and Superintendent Manny Caulk expressed several concerns about charter schools.

Board member Daryl Love said charter schools will bring an extra layer of complexity for a school district with limited resources. Melissa Bacon said the school district’s traditional schools were already offering more options and choices to serve students.

The General Assembly allowed charter schools in Kentucky, in part, to close achievement gaps between high-performing and low-performing groups of public school students.

But Caulk said that nowhere in the United States have charter schools closed the achievement gap.

Caulk said in the states where he’s worked with charter schools, “charter schools in and of themselves were not the answer.”

Putting a new charter school system on top of a system that’s already “woefully underfunded” will likely mean that more funding will eventually have to be spent on all students, Caulk said.

Also, he said, “charter schools have accelerated the racial resegregation in this country.”

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