Education leader tries to rally support for charter schools

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says he's trying to ease opposition to charter-schools legislation with education leaders around the state in case the issue is considered during a special legislative session in May.

"We've asked all our partners to give us feedback on what needs to be changed about the legislation that would either get their support or make it palatable so that they wouldn't actively block it or withdraw their support for Race to the Top," Holliday said.

Education leaders' opinions are key to support from House Democrats, according to House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. He said that as of Wednesday, there weren't enough votes in the Democratic-controlled House to pass a measure that would allow charter schools.

Stumbo said that until the Kentucky Education Association and other teachers' groups change their stances, it's unlikely that the House would vote for charter schools. There are at least a half-dozen current or retired teachers or administrators in the House.

The main selling point is that passage could help Kentucky win up to $175 million in federal Race to the Top grant money in June.

Holiday says Kentucky might lose out on the federal money if it doesn't adopt charter legislation. But he admits Kentucky's chances also would be hurt if concerns over charter schools caused state educators to pull their now unanimous backing for the application.

Holliday might have some convincing to do.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman says he couldn't support charter legislation as it's now written. And Berman said it would be unwise for Kentucky to rush approval of charter schools simply in hopes of winning Race dollars, arguing that Kentucky could win Race money even without the legislation.

"I think the commissioner has basically asked us to go along with this so we could secure the funds," Berman said Wednesday. "I don't think there is a school superintendent in the state who is a champion for charter schools."

Charter schools are public schools authorized to operate outside many of the rules of regular schools. More than 3,000 charters are operating nationwide, but there is sharp disagreement about their benefits.

Kentucky has no charter schools. But charters jumped into the limelight last month when Kentucky lost out in the first round of Race to the Top, largely because it has no charter-enabling legislation. Advocates hope to get charters approved in the upcoming special session to boost Kentucky's chances in June's second round of Race to the Top.

Holliday said he's received letters from several education organizations outlining concerns with the charter-schools bill that passed in the state Senate during the recently ended General Assembly.

William Scott, executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association, told Holliday in an April 14 letter that his organization "cannot support" the charter bill as passed by the Senate. Scott urged at least seven changes, including updating the process for approving charter schools and clarification of how students would be selected. Scott's association endorsed Kentucky's original Race application.

Wilson Sears, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said Wednesday that his group has taken no official position on charters. But he said a recent poll of members showed that about half are neutral on charters and the rest are about evenly split between support and opposition.

"We feel Kentucky public schools have made giant strides in the past 20 years, while this seems to be somewhat of a detour or a distraction," Sears said of charter schools. "We'd also like to see some changes in the bill now written, so it would remain a local school board decision as much as possible."

Holliday said he hopes to have proposed revisions ready next week so education groups and legislative leaders can review them.

"I'm doing everything I can to give them something to at least look at and decide if they want to put it on the agenda for the special session," he said. "If they don't, we'll move forward on our Race application without it."