Charter bill may exempt Fayette, Jefferson

The Kentucky Department of Education is circulating a draft of a new state charter schools bill that apparently could exempt Jefferson County and Fayette County school districts, the two biggest in the state.

Charters schools may be part of a special legislative session later this month. Passing a charters bill potentially could boost Kentucky's chances of winning up to $175 million in the federal Race To The Top program, but many state educators question whether charters are right for Kentucky.

Exempting Jefferson County could eliminate opposition from Superintendent Sheldon Berman, who has suggested his district might drop its support for the state's Race To The Top application if it includes a charter schools law.

A leading charter-schools supporter contended Tuesday the exemption is intended to secure the Jefferson Schools' continued support for Race To The Top. But he predicted it could backfire.

"When this (Race) application goes to Washington, the fact that Jefferson County, the largest school district in Kentucky, is exempted certainly will hurt the chance of getting $175 million in stimulus money," said Jim Waters, director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Bowling Green.

"If charter schools are needed anywhere, they're needed in the largest district in Kentucky."

Waters and other backers have long argued that charter schools should be made available as alternatives for students in low-performing schools in Jefferson County.

State Education Department spokeswoman Lisa Gross warned the public not to read too much into the new charter schools draft.

"The legislation doesn't provide specific definitions; there may be regulatory language later that does," she said. "But it's a little too early to say which districts might or might not be exempt."

Nevertheless, Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman said he thinks Fayette and Jefferson probably would be exempted under language in the draft providing that districts that have magnet schools, an existing student assignment plan and school choice wouldn't have to authorize charter schools.

There has been no organized drive for charters in Fayette.

State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday unveiled the new charter draft in an email to Kentucky school superintendents late last week, hoping to ease educators' fears over House Bill 109, the charter measure that passed the Senate in the recent legislative session.

Holliday is seeking feedback on the draft, which would make significant changes to HB 109, including provisions that appear to exempt Jefferson and Fayette. He has acknowledged he's focusing on charters mainly because they could enhance Kentucky's chances in the next round of the Race competition. Kentucky lost in the first round mainly because it lacks charter-schools enabling legislation.

Holliday hopes a bill can be passed in the upcoming special session so it can be included in Kentucky's application for the second round of Race To The Top, which must be filed in June. But he also says Kentucky's application could be hurt if there is less than 100 percent support from the state's school districts. He said he hopes to include charter legislation in the application that districts can support, or at least not actively oppose.

Waters, however, argued that students in Jefferson County would suffer if the county were exempted to secure Race support.

"If the objective is education for the kids, we need charter schools to create competition for public schools and help improve the performance of the entire district," he said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader