Meetings in Frankfort, Lexington used to push for charter schools

Kentucky proponents of charter schools are pushing for the independently operated, publicly funded schools as a solution to the achievement gap.

A discussion of charter schools Monday at the General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Education centered on the achievement gap for black, poor and disabled children in Fayette County.

A panel discussion to introduce parents and community members to the topic was held Monday night at the Northside Branch of the Lexington Public Library, and a similar event is planned Tuesday night in Louisville.

Attendees were urged to email their legislators about charter schools after the town hall meeting, which was sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Kentucky Charter Schools Association.

Mendell Grinter, director of Kentucky Black Alliance for Educational Options, said even a pilot program would be a step in the right direction.

Charter-school legislation has not been successful in Kentucky and generally has not been favored by Democrats, who remain in control in the state House of Representatives.

State Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, last week mentioned charter schools when he laid out a Republican agenda for the 2015 session of the General Assembly, but he said it and other issues were unlikely to be approved by the House.

Charter schools, while operating independently of a school district, are public schools, according to the Kentucky Charter Schools Association's website.

Like traditional public schools, they are funded by local, state and federal tax dollars based on student enrollment but are touted as having more flexibility. They may be run by groups of parents or teachers, nonprofit organizations or in some cases by companies.

Charter schools are free, and parents in states with charter schools may choose to send their children to one of those schools rather than the school designated by their school district.

Forty-two states have charter schools. Nationwide, more than 6,000 charter schools are teaching 2.5 million children, according to the association's website.

Wayne Lewis, chairman of the board of Kentucky Charter Schools Association, said the Kentucky Education Association has been one of the biggest obstacles to the passage of charter-schools legislation in Kentucky.

"We have to get their constituencies to hold them accountable," he said of legislators.

And he said that would happen when people understood the disparities in achievement between white students and minorities.

"It's indefensible," he said at the town hall meeting. "The gaps in Fayette County are the largest that we see in the state."

Lewis pointed to elementary school mathematics performance in public schools in Lexington. In 2012-13, 61.1 percent of white children in Fayette County scored at the proficient or distinguished level on the K-PREP test. But 26.9 percent of black children scored at the proficient or distinguished level that year.

Lewis told the legislative committee he was "fiery mad" about the gap.

He said middle-class families could move their children if they aren't satisfied with a school. "Poor people can't do that," he said.

He said at Lexington's town hall meeting that he would like to see "a number of different models" of charter schools here.

He said more arts-focused schools such as SCAPA were needed, as well as schools designed for children interested in the medical sciences, engineering, law and education.

Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, told the legislative committee that most of his members favored charter schools.

State Sen. Reggie Thomas said he did not know whether charter schools were the answer, but he called Fayette County's achievement gap "abysmal."

Thomas, D-Lexington, represents the district that includes William Wells Brown Elementary, which had the lowest test scores among all elementary schools in the state in 2013-14.

He said that before he decided whether Kentucky needed charter schools, he wanted to try to figure out what's going on at William Wells Brown. He said he wanted to meet with the principal and to "dig further" into what Fayette County schools must do to correct the achievement gap.

"We've got some serious problems in Fayette County regarding the achievement gap," he said.

Fayette County school officials have said they are putting an intensive plan in place to fix the problems at William Wells Brown. The school board has adopted the Fayette County Equity Council's recommendations to fix the achievement gap.

Nicole Jenkins, a parent who sat on the panel at the forum at the library, said she was not well-versed on charter schools, but she did know one thing about the achievement gap: "If we don't fix it, in 10 years, in 15 years, Lexington's going to be a very different place."

She said "the district is missing an opportunity" to look at schools such Dixie Elementary that are making gains and find out what they are doing to improve.

"There are some gap kids that are doing great," she said. "How do we duplicate what's working well?"