Republicans introduce bills to allow charter schools in Kentucky

As expected, Republican state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow public charter schools in Kentucky, including a pilot program in Fayette County.

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, introduced Senate Bill 253 on Tuesday, and Rep. Brad Montell, R-Shelbyville, introduced House Bill 589.

In the past, charter school legislation has failed in the General Assembly, but bringing charter schools to Kentucky has been a platform of Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.

The bills would allow pilot programs in Fayette and Jefferson counties. House Democrats and Fayette County school Superintendent Manny Caulk are not in favor of the legislation.

The legislation says charter schools would be part of the state’s system of public education, but it would be exempt from some laws and regulations applicable to the state board of education and local school districts. The charter schools would have to comply with the same safety,civil rights, testing and attendance laws and regulations as other public schools.

The local school board and the governing board of the charter school would enter into a contract. The legislation creates the Kentucky Public Charter School Commission as an independent state agency with chartering jurisdiction and authority. The commission would be attached to the Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development for administrative and support purposes, to expand opportunities for at-risk students, and to ensure the highest standards of accountability and oversight for the schools.

Wilson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill would focus on low-income students, achievement gaps, and reducing regulations and restrictions that inhibit innovation.

There would be a lottery for student applicants, with priority registration to low-income students and students attending low-performing schools.

Under the Senate bill, the charter organization must be nonprofit.

Although the targeted students would be low-income, they may reside anywhere in the school district where the charter is located.

The idea behind the legislation is to close achievement gaps between high-performing and low-performing groups of public school students.

Beginning in the 2017-18 academic year and continuing through academic year 2021-22, the charter school pilot project would allow a maximum of two charter schools to be authorized per academic year in urban county governments.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said “the achievement gap is the most urgent issue facing our state. There’s no magic fix to close these gaps. Increasing achievement across the board will require multiple, basic and innovative strategies. Carefully constructed charters with clear guidelines for accountability and structure may be one strategy.”

Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner said, “Charter schools are public schools that operate in 42 other states across the country and have shown to be valuable tools in creating student success and reducing the achievement gap.

“It is time we had this tool available in Kentucky. By creating a careful design in a limited approach, we can create the greatest possibility for success and achievement for Kentucky students. We look forward to working with education stakeholders and legislators on moving this important discussion forward.”

But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, did not agree.

“I have always said I am open to any ideas that would improve education, but charter-school supporters have not presented me evidence that their plan would achieve what they say it would. National and state studies show our public schools and students are succeeding,” said Stumbo. “College- and career-readiness is up significantly; our high school retention rate is among the top 10 states; and, according to the Department of Education, no state does a better job of graduating low-income students on time than Kentucky.”

Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, chairman of the House Education Committee said he was “ a strong supporter of public education and would not do anything to undermine it.”

“I also believe in local control when it comes to public education but do not think creating a separate system, exempt from long-established and easily justified local and state laws, is the right formula to improve test scores and close our academic gaps,” he said. “It must also be noted that our schools already can implement Districts of Innovation. That avenue lets us utilize cutting-edge ideas that, if successful, can be applied statewide.”

Caulk, meanwhile, said that current state laws and regulations already allow for the creation of targeted, innovative programs and that Fayette County has taken full advantage of that flexibility “to successfully establish choice for our families and students.”

“My experience with charter schools in other states includes converting public schools to charter schools, as well as opening, managing and working in charter schools at the elementary, middle and high school level,” Caulk said. “ I can say with confidence that in Kentucky we already have the flexibility we need to attain the excellence we seek.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears