FRANKFORT — Supporters told a state House committee Tuesday that charter schools would help Kentucky's struggling students excel, while opponents argued just as strongly that charters would harm public schools by siphoning away dwindling educational funds.
At issue before the House Education Committee was House Bill 77, sponsored by Rep. Brad Montell, R-Shelbyville, which would authorize charters in Kentucky, one of only eight states that don't have them.
Lawmakers heard two hours of testimony, but Tuesday's session was for information-gathering only. Committee chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, said afterward that Montell and other committee members had asked that no vote be taken. Rollins, who has admitted he's no fan of charters, said he doubts the bill has enough votes.
Nevertheless, the hearing gave proponents and opponents of charters ample opportunity to make their cases, with each side given an hour to make presentations.
Backers rolled out charter school operators and advocates from various states who told of charters making dramatic differences in students who were struggling in regular schools.
Lisa Grover, senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., said her organization supported Montell's bill. She said it would provide quality controls and other features the alliance favors in charter legislation.
Kentucky Education Association president Sharron Oxendine, meanwhile, led a contingent of teachers who oppose charters.
Wilson Sears, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, also offered opposition. Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University's College of Education, addressed the committee by telephone, saying his research showed that many charters don't deliver the educational improvements promised.
Charters are publicly funded schools that receive special permits, or "charters," allowing them to operate outside many rules that public schools usually must follow. For example, they may offer extended classroom hours or longer school years to help struggling students improve.
Interest in Kentucky mainly has been centered in Louisville, where some parents see charters as alternatives to persistently low-performing public schools.
A Louisville-based group began running television ads promoting charters around the state last month. The schools have received support in the Republican-controlled state Senate, but they've drawn little interest in the House. Montell has filed charter bills for the past several years, but, until Tuesday, none had received a hearing in the House Education Committee.
Some of the most dramatic testimony Tuesday came from Marcus Robinson, whose non-profit firm runs the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, an 8-year-old charter in Indianapolis. Tindley serves about 500 mostly black students in grades 6 through 12, many of whom are "two to three grades behind" when they enroll, he said.
Robinson said 100 percent of Tindley's first four graduating classes were accepted at major universities, including the University of Kentucky. Tindley was named a national blue-ribbon school in 2010, he said.
Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and now a charter schools advocate, said charters are "no panacea," but Kentucky lawmakers should consider them as an option to raise achievement.
"Whether we like it or not, when we look at international comparisons of our students to people in the rest of the world, we are declining," Fuller said. "It says to me that we have to consider other options."
But Oxendine painted a starkly different picture, arguing that creating a system of charter schools in Kentucky would weaken public schools when education funding is tight.
"In these dire times, creating two systems of public school like House Bill 77 will is not the answer," she said. "We should be working together, all of us in this room, to find solutions so that all Kentucky students can be successful."