A proposal that would allow charter schools to operate in Kentucky passed out of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday for the fifth year in a row.
However, the bill is opposed by the state's two largest teachers unions, the Kentucky Education Association and the Jefferson County Teachers Association, and is expected to face roadblocks in the House.
Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, would set up a five-year pilot program for as many as five charter schools in Fayette and Jefferson Counties that would be aimed at improving the academic performance of poor and minority children, who continue to underperform other groups.
The schools would be funded on a per-pupil basis out of state money, but they would be held accountable to a charter authority. If the charter schools didn't meet their accountability goals after five years, they could be shuttered.
Wilson said for-profit companies could be hired to manage the schools and their operations, but the schools would have to be staffed by certified teachers and would be subject to the scrutiny of the state auditor for their use of public funds.
"That's what this is all about: another tool to close the achievement gap," Wilson told the committee.
Wayne Lewis, a University of Kentucky education professor and charter school advocate, said Kentucky, as one of only eight states without charter schools, could learn from the experiences of other states.
"Some states have done very well and some states have stumbled," Lewis said. "This bill would give us a great start at getting some really high-performing schools in Kentucky. ... There need to be alternatives on the table, additional public school options when schools aren't doing a good job with meeting the needs of kids."
The two state senators whose districts are wholly in Lexington were divided on the issue.
Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, said his district includes several low-performing schools, and his discussions with parents indicate that they don't support charter schools. He said there have been numerous problems with corruption and a lack of accountability in other states.
But Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, said the achievement gap in Lexington schools has lingered too long.
"I say shame on us if we're not willing to look at other ways to do this," she said.
In other business, the committee discussed but did not vote on a bill that would allow computer programming to count as a foreign language credit in high school.
Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said he would rework his proposal after encountering opposition.
John Kruger, president of the Kentucky World Language Association, said students need more foreign language, not less.
"We're on the right track with what we're doing with foreign languages, and we need more, not to take away from them at this time," Kruger said.