Kentucky must pay for what the feds won't

Kentucky didn't win the pot of gold at the end of the education rainbow, but not because we don't have a charter school law.

The Kentucky School Boards Association put a pencil to the scoring by U.S. Department of Education reviewers.

The analysis debunks the notion that the legislature could have secured $175 million from the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition simply by rushing a charter school law onto the books.

Kentucky's application had other weaknesses for which a charter school law could not have compensated. (The evaluations and scores can be viewed at http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase2-applications/index.html.)

Now that the rainbow has faded, the legislature should stop looking for leprechauns and pay for what it ordered.

More than others, Kentucky was desperate to win the federal grant because the legislature, in 2009, threw out the state's learning standards and accountability system and somehow neglected to pay for new ones.

The change-out, which is estimated to cost about $175 million, must be complete by 2011-12 under the mandates of Senate Bill 1.

Like other states slammed by the economic downturn, Kentucky is already depending on federal funds to avoid teacher layoffs and deeper cuts to schools. That federal money, part of the stimulus package, runs out next year.

So the legislature must not only come up with money to replace the disappearing federal dollars, it must also pay for its new standards and accountability system.

State education officials are already floating the idea of delaying the new standards and tests. That would prolong Kentucky's years of standard-less limbo.

Kentucky is part of a consortium of states that last week did win federal funding to develop tests aligned with new core content standards.

Kentucky was the first to adopt the standards which have since been adopted by 33 other states and the District of Columbia. Unlike Kentucky, the other states are under no deadline.

To make the most of the new standards, Kentucky also needs money to prepare teachers for the transition.

It's a pickle that more discussions of charter schools will not fix.

But with legislative elections in November, look for Republicans to keep blaming Democrats and the Kentucky Education Association for costing the state $175 million by opposing charter schools.

Most Kentuckians don't know what charter schools are, which is understandable since they are different in every state that has them. As a rule, they are an urban innovation that's hard to replicate in rural areas with teacher shortages and demographics that demand the closing and consolidation of schools, not the opening of new ones.

Better to invest our energy and political capital in another area where Kentucky fell short in Race to the Top: tying teacher evaluations to student performance.

Of course, it's hard to evaluate teachers or students without standards and a testing system, which is where our rainbow-chasing legislature has left us.