A state Senate committee approved legislation Thursday that would allow public charter schools in a pilot program in Fayette and Jefferson counties.
The legislation says charter schools would be part of the state’s system of public education, but the schools would be exempt from some laws and regulations applicable to the state board of education and local school districts.
Proponents say the idea behind Senate Bill 253 is to close achievement gaps between high-performing and low-performing groups of public school students, including low-income students and students of color. 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 each academic year.
There was discussion at the meeting of Fayette County’s significant achievement gap. Fayette County Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk has said that the district already offers options that are helping to close the achievement gap and that charter schools, which would have boards of directors, are not needed. That was a sentiment expressed by several people who attended a charter school forum Wednesday night at Lafayette High School. The forum was hosted by State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, who serves on the Senate Education Committee and who voted against the bill Thursday. The vote was 9-3 in favor of the bill.
Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, the sponsor of Senate Bill 253, said it allowed schools freedom and flexibility in exchange for exceptional levels of results for students who otherwise would be at risk of failing. The schools would be tuition-free and non-profit, with no religious affiliation.
In the past, charter school legislation has failed in the General Assembly, but bringing charter schools to Kentucky has been an initiative of Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.
House Democrats have said they are not in favor of charter schools.
Thursday’s committee meeting saw some sharply worded testimony. Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, told the legislative committee that the bill is full of contradictions and empty promises.
Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner said Kentucky needs public charter schools to help struggling students. He said that charters are allowed in 42 other states and the District of Columbia.
“When will we put children before adults?” Heiner asked lawmakers. “When will we stop drinking the KEA’s stagnant water whose very mission statement puts adults before children? They are the lead opposition.”
Wayne Lewis, a professor at the University of Kentucky, testified in favor of charter schools. He said only the highest-quality charter schools would be allowed.
Under the legislation, the local school board and the governing board of the charter school would enter into a contract. The legislation would create 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. Either the local school board or the commission would authorize the charter school. The commission would be appointed by the governor.
Wilson has said the bill reduces regulations and restrictions that inhibit innovation.
In the case of many applicants to a charter school, there would be a lottery, with priority registration given to low-income students and students attending low-performing schools.
The funding would be the same as for public schools, Wilson said.
State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, voted for the bill, saying, “I no longer want to see my Fayette County students ... where they are sitting in the back of the bus. I want to see all the Fayette County students ... moved up to the front of the bus.”
Thomas said he thought Fayette County already had schools that provided the innovations that proponents say charter schools bring. Thomas described the achievement gap in Fayette County as horrific but said the answer is early childhood education, lower student-teacher ratio and parental involvement.
Senate Bill 253 now goes to the full Senate.
Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, State Rep. Brad Montell, R-Shelbyville, has introduced similar legislation in House Bill 589.