Kentucky Senate panel approves bill allowing charter schools, school choice

FRANKFORT — A bill allowing charter schools in Kentucky, and letting parents under certain conditions to enroll their children in public schools closest to their homes, is headed for a likely Senate vote Friday.

Senate Bill 3 sailed out of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, with all five Democrats on the committee voting against it. The bill's co-sponsor, Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said afterward that he expects a vote by the full Senate on Friday.

Most of the 2½ -hour committee discussion focused on the bill's school-enrollment provisions, which are aimed primarily at the Jefferson County Public Schools, but apparently could apply to other Kentucky districts as well. Officials at the Fayette County Public Schools said Thursday afternoon that they don't believe the measure will affect Lexington as it's now written.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are granted special contracts, or "charters," freeing them from many public school regulations. Proponents say this allows charters to use new, more innovative teaching methods, helping students who have been struggling in traditional schools.

Williams, who described SB 3 to education committee members Thursday, stressed that it allows, but doesn't require, charter schools. Charters, he said, would provide "a new tool" for Kentucky school districts to help low-achieving students.

SB 3 would allow individuals, groups or organizations to apply to local school boards to create the charter schools. The new schools would have to be non-religious, designed to close achievement gaps for low-achieving students, and intended to offer Kentucky families alternatives to traditional public schools.

New schools created under SB 3 could be chartered for up to five years, then apply for renewal. However, a local school board could revoke a school's charter if it failed to make "reasonable progress" in raising achievement, or if the board determined that continued operation was not in the interest of students.

Another charter-school bill, pre-filed in the state House by Rep. Brad Montel, R-Shelbyville, provides a somewhat different system for launching charters, and it would allow no more than 20 of the schools in Kentucky.

Several people spoke in favor of SB 3, including the Rev. Martina Ockerman of Lexington, who said she supports the Fayette County Public Schools but thinks charters would provide needed educational flexibility for families.

The Rev. Jerry Stephenson, an advocate for charter schools in Jefferson County, told the committee that charters are needed now to help black students who are falling behind.

"We can't wait for another study to be done by the public education system," he said.

The hottest debate surrounded the school attendance portion of SB 3. The bill basically says that in a school district that has no single contiguous attendance boundary for each of its schools, parents or guardians may enroll their children in the schools nearest their homes.

Williams said the enrollment provision is aimed at situations in Jefferson County where children are bused to schools far from their homes. That keeps many parents from being involved in their children's education because they're too far from schools to take part in programs or visit with teachers, Williams said.

He called SB 3 "an attempt to put children back in the classroom and off the bus," that would "allow parents to have some say in where their children attend school."

Jefferson County School Board representatives said the district would have to spend millions on new schools in order to comply with the bill, and also predicted it wouldn't work.

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