Charter bill would put public schools at risk statewide

In the 12 days left in this General Assembly, Republican lawmakers will be under pressure to put party loyalty above their public schools and vote for a charter-school bill endorsed by Gov. Matt Bevin and lobbied for by prominent officials of the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Bevin and other supporters talk of opening charter schools in Louisville and Lexington. But House Bill 520, filed Feb. 17 and endorsed a few days later by the governor, puts no limits on the number of charters or their locations and could drain small county and independent school districts of critical funding.

HB 520 would allow virtual charter schools, which teach via the internet, to enroll an unlimited number of students from all over the state and suck an unlimited number of tax dollars out of Kentucky for out-of-state corporations.

Many small districts already struggle financially; some also are reeling from a loss of revenue from the coal industry’s decline. For every 20 to 25 students who transfer to a charter, a teacher would be lost at the students’ former school. Larger districts might absorb such losses; small districts would be hammered.

In the last 20-plus years, charters in other states have produced the same mixed results as public schools, nothing transformational. Virtual charter schools have a dismal record, even according to charter-school champions.

Charter schools do have politically potent allies in Kentucky.

Three Republican Party of Kentucky officials are lobbyists for K12, a publicly traded company in Herndon, Va. that operates charter and online schools. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ husband was an investor in K12. Amy Wickliff, state Republican Party finance chair, and state Republican executive committee members John T. McCarthy III and Libby Milligan are among the eight lobbyists, all part of McCarthy Strategic Solutions, lobbying for K12.

Former state Republican chair Steve Robertson is registered to lobby for National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school company based in Grand Rapids, Mich., whose founder is a big Republican donor.

Bevin and his Education Secretary Hal Heiner, both of Louisville, strongly support charter schools.

Nonetheless, a charter-school bill has yet to be heard in committee. And many questions need answers before lawmakers cast a vote.

Even if virtual charters are dropped, HB 520’s method of allocating resources is “concerning and unclear,” writes Pam Thomas of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Unanswered: How much state and local funding would districts have to transfer to charters? How would the mandated appropriations for charter employees’ benefits be accomplished? With transportation already underfunded, how could districts afford to transport charter students, who might have classes in the summer or on weekends? Is the transfer of local taxes out of the district where they were paid allowed under Kentucky’s constitution?

Those are for starters.

Since 1990, Kentucky has moved from the bottom in education rankings to the middle, without charter schools. Lawmakers risk more by rushing something into law in 12 days than by waiting, even another year, to understand what they’re doing.