Think hard, ask questions before funding charter schools

Libby Marshall
Libby Marshall

House Bill 520, opening Kentucky public education to charter schools, has the potential to compromise services for all children in public schools.

In Kentucky, we are seeing the results of the hard work of education reform. Kentucky public education is reaching the Top 20 tier of states in significant areas as detailed in a 2016 study by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence:

▪ Reading and science scores are in the Top 20 for grades 4 and 8.

▪ High school graduation and associate degree completion are in the Top 20.

▪ Grade 4 math, high school Advanced Placement credits, and students starting higher education are approaching the Top 20.

Is it wise at this time to duplicate facility, administrative and other overlapping costs of charter schools when state and federal funding for public education are still below 2008 pre-recession levels? Diluting the thinly stretched funds of public schools when Kentucky is making true progress risks our continuing success.

Two primary arguments are made for charter schools: the opportunity for more creative programming, and closing the achievement gap. The goal of more creative programming can be achieved by greater flexibility in state and federal regulations for existing schools.

The achievement gap is far more challenging. It results from complex issues with difficult solutions. Simple sound bites such as “public education is failing,” conceal both the causes and the answers.

Public education is the single institution that for decades has absorbed enormous upheavals in our society: restructuring of the nuclear family, disconnection from the extended family, entrenched poverty, the scourge of drugs. These upheavals have become “the new normal” for many children.

For some children, public educators must ensure they are fed, clothed, receive health care and are taught the most basic social functioning. It is not unusual in a school district to have students who are assigned a dedicated staff because the student needs constant supervision and support to be among other students.

Most importantly, researchers confirm that the achievement gap begins in infancy with insufficient brain stimulation, particularly language stimulation, which will hinder learning for years to come.

If closing the achievement gap is the true priority, it must be addressed in the critical years of birth to five years when language development is at a peak, and preferably within the first three years.

Kentucky has the HANDS program to teach and support parents of newborns in high risk families. It is one of the General Assembly’s truly enlightened initiatives, but it addresses a fraction of families who need help nurturing the physical and mental development of their infant.

Public education is the melting pot for all children where the expectation is, rightfully so, that every child will progress to his or her potential. But we must be realistic about the costs of educating our most fragile children and offering an education that challenges every student, including our most advanced students.

Here are questions that citizens should ask their legislators:

Will a separate funding source support charter schools or will it come from existing public education funding?

What is the assurance that charter schools will share equally in educating all children or will there be “left behind children” with significant needs and costly services?

Is this the beginning of transferring public education tax dollars to private interests for private profit?

We must think this through carefully because this is one of those irreversible decisions. Kentucky has wisely watched and waited on legislation passed in other states. The national charter school picture is still cloudy. The General Assembly should not be in a hurry on a matter of such importance to the commonwealth and its citizens of all ages.

Reach your legislator at 502 564-8100 or leave a message at 1-800 372-7181.

Libby Marshall, a Frankfort attorney, serves on the Frankfort Independent Board of Education. This is her opinion, not a statement from the board.