Politics & Government

Charter schools would be allowed in Fayette County under proposed legislation

State Sen. Mike Wilson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Fayette County Public Schools would be included in a bill he intends to introduce to create a pilot program for charter schools in Kentucky.

Kentucky is one of eight states that do not have charter schools.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools 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, teachers or nonprofit organizations. Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said the legislation for Kentucky's General Assembly is still being written, but the limited pilot program would be aimed at districts with an "unconscionable" achievement gap between minority, disabled and low income students and other students.

Describing the charter school pilot, Wilson said, "We want to give it as a tool where it's needed and let it prove itself."

In Fayette County, 33.3 percent of black students scored proficient in reading compared to 68.4 percent of whites in 2012-13

An analysis of Fayette student performance from 2005 to 2013, called an equity scorecard, showed that the achievement gap had widened. Fewer students from all groups scored distinguished and proficient on state achievement tests than during previous years. Most of the gaps were larger than in previous years.

Wilson and Fayette Interim Superintendent Marlene Helm said they had not talked about the proposed pilot program.

Charter schools are free, and parents in states with charter schools may send their children to one of those schools rather than the district-designated schools. Wilson noted that charter schools that don't see high achievement are dissolved.

He said the state Senate had approved charter school legislation previously, but the House did not.

State Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, chairman of the House Education Committee, which probably would have to approve Wilson's legislation, said Wednesday that he did not know details of the proposed Senate legislation. But he said he agreed with state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday's position that charter schools in Kentucky would need to be chartered by school districts.

Graham also said he has been working on legislation with the state Department of Education aimed at eliminating the achievement gap.

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said Holliday consistently had said that he was supportive of parent choice and parent engagement and that he supported charter schools as an option for the state's lowest-performing schools as long as local school boards were the chartering authority. Under state law, there is an outside management option that is similar to charters for persistently low-achieving schools , Rodriguez said.

Emerging research shows charters are performing at higher levels in several large urban districts across the country.

Wayne Lewis, chairman of the board of the Kentucky Public Charter Schools Association, said that organization was in favor of school districts being one of the chartering authorities but not the only one. The second authority could be an independent charter commission, the state board of education or the commissioner of education, Lewis said. In some states, a university, a mayor or a city council also may authorize a charter school, he said.

The charter schools association issued a report in November that said high-quality public charter schools can help close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in Kentucky's public education system.

Lewis, who is also a University of Kentucky assistant professor, and Lisa Grover, senior director of state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, co-authored the report. They noted significant disparities in Kentucky's two largest school districts, Fayette in Lexington and Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville.

Wilson said the Jefferson County district likely also would be part of the pilot program.