National News
October 19, 2009

Bills seek to bring charter schools to Kentucky

By Chris Kenning

The idea of charter schools has long failed to gain traction in Kentucky — but that could be changing.

Two bills to authorize charter schools have been filed for the coming General Assembly, and the Kentucky Department of Education is currently studying the pros and cons.

Supporters say momentum is building because without such legislation, Kentucky could lose out on up to $200 million in federal stimulus money aimed at education reform and innovation.

“I think it’s the year for us,” said state Rep. Brad Montell, R-Shelbyville, who announced Monday that he had filed a bill to allow the creation of state-funded charters dubbed “public school academies,” which he said would provide an alternative to failing schools.

Pioneered in Minnesota in 1992, charter schools are independent public schools that get taxpayer funding but aren’t held to many of the rules and regulations that apply to regular schools.

In exchange for more autonomy, charter schools must meet academic goals and are held accountable by a sponsor, usually a school board, a state or a university, which can cancel the contract if academic goals aren’t met — and close the school.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, has already filed charter-school legislation, and both lawmakers said there appears to be a growing willingness among colleagues to consider it.

Gov. Steve Beshear, asked Monday if he supported charter schools, said “all the options are on the table.”

But opponents were already lining up Monday to oppose the push for charter schools.

Jefferson County Teachers Association president Brent McKim vowed to lobby against the bills, which he said would siphon money from public schools, skim off the best students and complicate student assignment.

“They’re not really about empowering schools,” he said of charter schools. “They’re really about undermining public schools by diverting funds and resources.”

Charter schools have mixed record

As optional schools, some charters adopt a specific curriculum focus, such as fine arts or math, while others offer smaller classes or alternative instructional approaches. Indiana has 53 charter schools, first opened in 2002, whose focus ranges from arts to project-based curriculums, officials there said.

Although many have been successful, the report card on charters remains mixed. The Center for Education Reform recently found that of 5,250 charter schools to have opened since 1992, more than 600 have closed because of financial difficulty, mismanagement or poor performance.

The concept has never gained much support in Kentucky, where charter schools remain illegal. That’s partly because the state’s school councils already give parents and teachers some control over school curriculums and budgets, state officials say.

It’s not clear whether the move ultimately will gain traction in the legislature. Lee said the chairman of the House Education committee indicated he’d consider hearing it. Neither House Speaker Greg Stumbo nor Senate President David Williams could be reached for comment Monday.

And plenty of questions remain about how the charter schools would work.

“Our main concern is oversight and funding,” Gross said. “Most states with charter schools have a separate part of the state agency that deals with just those schools.”

But charter supporters are hopeful, in part because of the belief that it would help Kentucky get a greater share of President Obama’s $4.4 billion "Race to the Top” funds to pay for education reform and innovation.

The money, which was part of the federal stimulus package, is expected to be released in two phases, with the first occurring early next year. And earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states “that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications.”

Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for state education department, said that is just one criterion the feds would use to judge state applications, and that lack of charters wouldn’t necessarily mean Kentucky would be passed over for funding.

Still, she said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is examining potential costs, oversight rules and other issues surrounding charter schools to determine if the department would support enabling legislation.

State funding would follow student

Although many details remain to be ironed out, both of the bills filed so far would create a state panel that would approve charter applications, which could come from non-profit groups to start a new school or parents and teachers of an existing school. School boards, universities and local government would sponsor them.

State per-pupil funding would follow the students who attend the charter schools, and under Montell’s bill the charters would still give state and federal tests, be subject to audits and be accountable to the state board of education.

Supporters, including a group of black Louisville pastors and the Bluegrass Institute, a conservative education think tank, say they would be more free to adopt innovative approaches that could help students, especially in urban areas where some schools repeatedly fail to meet goals.

“We can no longer lose generations of our children” to poorly performing schools, said Louisville Pastor Jerry Stephenson, chairman of a group of pastors and parents called the Kentucky Education Restoration Alliance, pushing for the change.

Louisville parent Onda Banks, of Louisville, said her middle-school-aged son could benefit from a charter school that offered more one-on-one attention.

“We should have the right to choose a school like that,” she said.

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at (502) 582-4697.

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