Charter schools interest growing in Lexington

A small but growing number of Lexington residents say they're interested in charter schools as a state Senate committee prepares to consider a charter schools bill on Thursday.

Having a charter school or schools could help students who are struggling in mainstream classrooms and offer a choice for families seeking alternatives to traditional public schools, they've said.

"I guarantee you there is lot of frustration among parents with the public school system in Lexington," said Brandi Carey, a mother of four who says a charter school could provide Lexington students with more choices in language immersion programs.

To be sure, there is no groundswell of charter school support yet. And no one has indicated any intention of starting a charter school in Lexington if the General Assembly approves enabling legislation.

Talk about charter schools previously has been limited mainly to Louisville, where some parents are calling for charters as alternatives for students in persistently low-achieving public schools.

Charters are schools that are publicly funded but granted a permit or "charter" excusing them from many regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Backers say the freedom allows charters to be more innovative, therefore raising student achievement.

Critics say just the opposite, and charters remain controversial.

Kentucky doesn't allow charter schools, and previous state legislative efforts to approve them have gone nowhere. But supporters keep trying.

The state Senate Education Committee is to meet in Frankfort on Thursday morning to discuss Senate Bill 3, which would authorize the creation of charter schools. Sponsored by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, SB 3 also would let parents enroll their children in the public schools closest to their homes, under certain conditions.

State Rep. Brad Montel, R-Shelbyville, also has pre-filed a charter school bill in the House, and state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, says he's working on one.

Interest in charter schools in Lexington has grown in recent months with Asteroids, a group of parents, educators and clergy who have been discussing charter schools since about September.

The Rev. Martina Ockerman, a leader of the group, said Asteroids recently held an informational meeting with representatives from the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a Bowling Green think tank that supports charter schools, and some backers from the Louisville area.

"There is definitely an interest in charter schools," Ockerman said. "It seems the time has come for parents to have more educational choices than those the public school system is offering."

Ockerman, former director of Lexington's Nathaniel Mission, said she hopes charter schools would give students more exposure to arts and humanities, music and physical education than many public schools provide.

Brandi Carey, who has attended Asteroids meetings, contends that charter schools could help many students who aren't getting the services they need in public school. And she notes that charters can be shut down if they don't produce results, something that can't be done with a public school.

"You have schools in Louisville that have been failing for years and their doors are still open," Carey said. "That doesn't happen with charter schools, and that's the beauty of it. It makes sense to me."

John Crissman, another interested parent, said his children will be starting school soon and he wants the best education possible for them. He said he and his wife probably will try home schooling, but they also would like to see quality charter schools available.

"I don't think charter schools necessarily are a panacea, but I think that all options should be on the table," Crissman said. "There have been some successes with charter schools in other states, and I'd be very interested in seeing good, sound charter school legislation passed in Kentucky, based on those successes."

The Rev. Willis Polk, pastor of Lexington's Imani Baptist Church, says charters could be a valuable addition, if enabling legislation is properly crafted.

Polk argues that too many students are falling through the cracks.

"Many of our children graduate from high school, go to college, and arrive there with great deficiencies. Something must be done. Some people are looking at this (charters) and hoping and praying that some kind of alternative is made possible for our kids."