Education

They want to open Kentucky charter schools, but only if the legislature changes its mind.

The director of the private LaFontaine Preparatory School, in Richmond, Kentucky wants to transition it into a public charter school and is asking lawmakers to create a permanent funding mechanism for charter schools in the state.
The director of the private LaFontaine Preparatory School, in Richmond, Kentucky wants to transition it into a public charter school and is asking lawmakers to create a permanent funding mechanism for charter schools in the state. Provided by Gus LaFontaine

People who want to open public charter schools in Kentucky have written Republican House Speaker David Osborne and Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, urging them to reconsider a decision not to create a funding mechanism for public charter schools.

Time is running out because state legislators return to Frankfort Friday to begin the final two days of the 2018 session.

Since the 2017 General Assembly approved charter schools for the first time in Kentucky, people who want to open the schools have generally been quiet. But this week, Gus LaFontaine, director of a Richmond private school he wants to transition into a tuition-free public charter school, and people who want to open charter schools in Northern Kentucky and in Jefferson County wrote to lawmakers about their need for a funding mechanism. On Wednesday, they talked about their plans for charter schools in a public conference call led by Joel Adams, executive director of the Kentucky Public Charter Schools Association.

Adams said when the charter school legislation was passed last year, the funding mechanism was put into temporary budget language. Adams said lawmakers had said all along that the funding mechanism — which generally calls for charter school students to get the same state funds as typical public school students — would be made permanent in 2018. But that has not happened. The funding mechanism was at one point placed in a revenue bill, House Bill 366, but was stripped out in a legislative conference.

“This leaves a gaping hole in the law that we have to find a way to amend immediately,” said Adams.

LaFontaine and two others who hope to open charter schools said they won’t continue their efforts without a permanent funding mechanism.

“We will continue to operate as a tuition-based private school,” LaFontaine, director of LaFontaine Preparatory School, told the Herald-Leader.

“We understand that you have two days this week when you could reverse your decision and we are asking you to do that,” the letter said. “The signers of this letter want to open public charter schools to fulfill unmet needs in our communities. ... While we are disappointed, the real losers from this about-face are students.”

People against charter schools have been letting lawmakers know they are upset that legislation was passed last year to allow them in Kentucky. One fear is that public charter schools will hurt already financially strapped public traditional schools.

“We know you’ve heard from a lot of angry people this session,” the letter to lawmakers said. “But just because these hardworking parents above, and hundreds more like them, aren’t showing up at the capitol to protest, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there and counting on you to keep your promise. There are two sides to every debate, and we represent the side you’re not considering. Our voices should matter, too. Kentucky can both fully fund district schools and fund charter schools..”

Osborne, R- Prospect, and Shell, R- Lancaster, on Thursday did not immediately comment on the letter. Given that charter school regulations have been approved by the General Assembly, school boards have to start reviewing applications under state law. Jefferson County Schools officials have said they plan to start accepting applications next week from people wanting to open charter schools.

Both Eric King, who hopes to open a charter school called Kentucky International Scholars Academies in Jefferson County and Lynn Schaber, a Newport parent working to open a regional charter school in northern Kentucky, told the Herald-Leader Thursday they don’t plan to proceed if a permanent funding mechanism for charter schools is not approved.

“It will be virtually impossible to start a charter school in Kentucky without funding language that will allow outside users to fund the opening of charter schools. I think that most people who actually know what charter schools really are, want to see charter schools in Kentucky and are just waiting for them to open,” King said.

Adams, of the Charter School Association, said the lack of a funding mechanism will curtail applications to open charter schools which must be approved by local school boards or the mayors of Louisville and Lexington.

“If there is a path to funding, I’m sure all will apply,” said Adams. “However, if there is no path, it would be near impossible to apply as the application calls for a budget, and they would not have the information needed to create one.”

LaFontaine, a former Madison County public school educator, said his private school currently serves 175 families in pre-K through 5, featuring small class sizes and teachers trained in specialized subjects including engineering. Parent Natalie Dunaway, said in the letter to lawmakers that she is a single mother whose daughter won’t be able to continue at LaFontaine if it doesn’t become a charter school.

“I receive child care assistance right now and it is absolutely 100 percent the only reason I am able to even consider this wonderful facility. .... Without charter schools, we will be going through a change in schools because I can no longer afford to keep her where I choose because daycare assistance is not accepted for Kindergarten. ...I cannot explain enough what charter schools would mean to my little family. This gives my daughter a shot at something she otherwise couldn't have,” Dunaway said.

Schaber said she’s one of six volunteer parents who live in cities covered by six independent school boards who want to set up a regional charter school called River Cities Academy, designed to “peacefully coexist” with other public schools. She said the curriculum would be project-based and will include longer school days and a longer school year.

Schaber said the countless hours of work in developing the school, “will all be for naught and worthless without the funding.”

Adams said in addition to the three proposed charter schools whose officials are reaching out to lawmakers, there are five or six others in the state in various stages of development. There are efforts to start charter schools in Central and Eastern Kentucky and other parts of the state, he said.

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

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