While certainly not a done deal – Gov. Matt Bevin says it's possible the issue will have to wait since the upcoming legislative session will focus on the budget – proponents and opponents alike say the chances are greater than ever that this session, which begins Tuesday, could end with Kentucky becoming one of the last remaining states in the nation to adopt a charter school law.
As the question turns from whether charter schools have a place in the Bluegrass State to what place they should occupy, many are looking to other states to help determine what path Kentucky should take.
Bevin touts charter schools
“One of the advantages of being 20 years late to this innovative movement is Kentucky will be able to … benefit from the laboratory of 43 other states," said Hal Heiner, the newly named Kentucky Secretary of Education and Workforce Development and a charter school supporter.
Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that are run by outside groups and are often freed from some of the onerous requirements placed on more traditional public schools, such as not having to follow class-size requirements or having a nontraditional school calendar.
Supporters tout charter schools as a way to encourage innovative teaching methods, which could in turn close achievement gaps by better reaching kids who don’t thrive in a traditional public school setting. But opponents contend they siphon taxpayer dollars away from public schools and, without effective oversight, can result in cases of mismanagement and insufficient attention to equity.
Research has been mixed on charter schools, and for a good reason: charter schools can look very different not only from state to state, but even within a county.
For instance, a recent report on urban charter schools by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that, on average, urban charter school students performed better in math and reading compared to their traditional school counterparts. But those findings were mixed depending on the region being examined; in some communities, the majority of urban charter schools had smaller learning gains compared to their traditional school counterparts.
"It's hard to have a discussion nationally about the charter schools story," said Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who studies charter schools. "Their autonomy allows them to be very different from each other, and the rules in which they operate from state to state also makes them very different."
Finding the best policy for Kentucky
Jennifer Saba, director of state policy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said while there are local factors that determine how successful individual charters will be, a lot of it has to do with the strength of state policy.
But of course, there is debate about exactly what a strong charter school system looks like.
Heiner pointed to charter school policies in Indiana as a good foil for Kentucky, while others have suggested looking to other systems, including Georgia's, which is where new Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt worked before coming to Kentucky.
Researchers, charter school proponents and others say that several major issues must be hammered out before the passage of any charter school bill, including who decides which charter schools get to open; who oversees the charter schools; what sort of accountability and transparency is required; and even how students should be chosen for charter schools to try to ensure equity and keep schools from cherry-picking.
Many charter school proponents, including Heiner, tout the idea of having multiple “authorizers,” or entities that accept and review proposals for new charter schools. Others, including the Kentucky School Boards Association, are pushing to have local school boards as the state’s only authorizers, arguing having multiple authorizers can create inconsistency or unforeseen conflict.
"There's no way a Frankfort panel or even the Kentucky Board of Education would be aware of whether a charter school in one end of the county would create issues in another end of the county," said Brad Hughes, spokesman for the state school board group.
Tom Loveless, an education researcher with public policy think tank Brookings Institution, said the idea of having local school boards approve and monitor charter schools is "good in the sense that you have people who know something about schools and school performance, but the downside is you are asking a school system to basically monitor their competitors."
Jefferson County Public Schools, which could find itself authorizing charter schools should legislation pass, has made it a priority to block charter school legislation in the upcoming session.
Loveless said that regardless of who authorizes charter schools, Kentucky must ensure that they will be active and hands-on, and will "assume accountability for the performance of the charter. It's taken years and years to close down charters in some states because authorizers are not monitoring them."
A possible pilot program
Lawmakers have yet to file a charter bill for the 2016 General Assembly, but last’s year’s bill – which died in the Democrat-controlled House – had language authorizing both local school districts as well as a governor-appointed state board to create charter schools.
State Sen. Mike Wilson, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he has co-sponsored charter school legislation for the past several years and has plans to again file a charter school bill this session.
He said the bill he plans to introduce would essentially create a five-year pilot program for charter schools in Jefferson and Fayette counties, which he said have "unconscionable" achievement gaps for minorities and low-income students.
State Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, who chairs the House Education Committee, did not respond to requests for comment.
Midwest Church of Christ Pastor Jerry Stephenson, who has led local support for charter schools since 2009, has long pushed for bringing charter schools to western Louisville, saying some of the schools serving residents in his part of town are failing students.
Stephenson added that opening a charter school could help revitalize the neighborhood.
He pointed to Indianapolis' Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School – a charter school that opened about 10 years ago in a neighborhood called The Meadows that was experiencing high levels of concentrated poverty – as an example of how charter schools can improve a community. As of last year, $66 million had been invested in the neighborhood since 2000, according to data from United Northeast Community Development Corporation, which is leading redevelopment. Crime rates have also fallen, The Indianapolis Star reports.
But while the charter certainly catalyzed redevelopment of The Meadows, stabilizing the community took more than just establishing a school, said Amandula Anderson, executive director for the development corporation.
Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said many of the details of his proposed legislation are still being worked out – including whether for-profit charter management companies will be allowed – but he said he plans to propose only allowing a maximum of five charter schools in each county's school district in the first five years.
He wants a system where low-income students and students in low-performing schools would get first dibs on charter school seats.
He also plans to propose an accountability measure that would shut down the charter schools after those five years if they aren't able to meet certain goals to increase reading and math scores and close the achievement gap.
"The beauty of the pilot program is, if charter schools don't prove they can be successful, then at the end of the pilot program, you don't have any more charters," Wilson said.
Not a done deal
The Kentucky Board of Education has not taken a position on charter schools, but Pruitt said he thinks charter schools could be "a good thing in the right situation" – as long as they’re part of a broader plan for improving education.
"You can't slap a charter name on a marquee and expect things to get better," Pruitt said.
This is the first state Pruitt has worked in that doesn't have charter schools, and he said Kentuckians should be “looking at the national trends” and asking whether charter schools have “actually made a difference, and in what conditions” they have been effective.
Wilson said he feels more optimistic than ever about the passage of charter school legislation. "The governor has made it clear this is one of his priorities," Wilson said. "And we just had another member of the House switch his party."
Despite uncertainty whether charter school legislation will pass in the upcoming session, Bevin pledged to bring the issue forward "in a repeated and timely manner" until it passes.
"We’re one of only seven states in America where there is no competition for public education dollars," he said. "That's crazy. That has to end. We deserve better than that."
But bringing charters to Kentucky is anything but a done deal.
Hughes, with the state school board group, said that "there has been a lot of opposition" historically for charter schools in the commonwealth.
"It's got a greater chance now than it ever has had before," Hughes said. "But we're not just going to sit by and allow a pro-charter steamroller to come through and put kids left in public schools at a disadvantage."
What are charter schools?
Charter schools are public schools in that they are publicly funded and held accountable for student outcomes (often, they’re held accountable to state standards through the standardized tests other public school students take). But they’re also freed from some of the rules and regulations traditional public schools face.
Supporters say charter schools encourage innovative ways of educating kids, like extended school days or employing specialized teaching methods, which could be especially effective for reaching low-income and minority students. Opponents say they siphon public funds away from traditional public schools and, without adequate oversight, can lead to mismanagement and insufficient attention to equity.
JCPS and school choice
Educators point out that Kentucky already has policies that provide some of the flexibility that makes charter schools so appealing.
For instance, school-based decision-making committees already get to make certain curriculum and budget decisions for individual schools. And the state has named four Districts of Innovation, including Jefferson County Public Schools, who can apply for waivers from certain state regulations in order to innovate.
And of course, JCPS began its focus on school choice – which charter school supporters are for – decades ago when it established its magnet and choice system.