This from Sara Mead at US News and World Report:
Earlier this week, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed legislation enacting the state's first charter school law – making the state the 44th in the country to allow establishment of these independently operated, free public schools of choice. National charter advocates hailed the legislation, which will allow districts in the state to begin considering applicants from prospective charter operators starting in the 2017 to 2018 school year. The new law is the result of years of advocacy and legislative efforts: Bills to allow charter schools have been filed in the Kentucky General Assembly since 2008. But the passage of this legislation doesn't mean the fight is over – in fact, the hard work is just beginning.
In the increasingly polarized debate over public education in the United States, supporters and opponents of charter schools alike often speak in broad generalizations, hailing charter schools as creating high-quality options for students, or criticizing them as opening the door for creeping privatization. The reality, however, is far more complex.
Experience and research in the 43 states that already have charter schools illustrate that charter schools can live up to both the best of what their proponents promise and the worst of what their detractors fear. Moreover, what charter schooling looks like varies tremendously across states and communities. Stanford University researchers found Rhode Island charter school students gained 86 days more learning in reading than peers in traditional public schools, while those in Nevada learned 108 days less.
What determines whether a state's charter schools perform like those in Rhode Island or those in Nevada – and what might this mean for future charter schools in Kentucky? As I've learned in researching and working with charter schools in several states over the past two decades, it's complicated.
Clearly, public policies – particularly but not exclusively state charter laws – play a role. Kentucky's charter law incorporates some lessons from the past 25 years' experience with charter schooling that may help support charter quality. For example, it requires charter school authorizers – who play a crucial role in approving charter applicants and holding them accountable for their performance once approved – to adhere to policies and procedures consistent with national professional standards for authorizing. It also prohibits creation of virtual charter schools, whose performance has been disastrous in many states.
But a review of charter school performance across states and cities suggests that laws and policies alone can't account for variation in results – nor are they sufficient to ensure charter school quality. Other factors, such as the quality and will of charter school authorizers; the presence of strong human capital pipelines; the ability to attract and cultivate great school leaders and operators; and the presence of robust ecosystems of philanthropic funding and support services for charters, also play a crucial role – as do idiosyncratic features of state and local contexts that are hard to quantify.
Some conditions in Kentucky, such as a history of commitment to standards-based education reform, could support creation of quality charters. Other conditions are more mixed. A requirement that charter schools employ only certified teachers, for example, could make it difficult for charters with innovative models – such as Montessori, bilingual, and personalized learning-focused schools – to attract or cultivate the talent they need. The state's law gives primary responsibility for authorizing charter schools to local school districts, while also providing for repeal of district decisions to the State Board of Education. This approach has enabled charter growth in places like California, but relies on districts' willingness and capacity to be good authorizers – which can be hard if districts have limited capacity or view charters as competitors. The law also allows Mayors in Louisville and Lexington to choose to become authorizers. Partisan polarization around charter schools could also create challenges.Ultimately, ensuring that Kentucky's new law actually creates great schools for kids will require a combination of actors to work together, including talented educators and leaders with vision to create new, high-quality schools; district leaders and mayors committed to being quality authorizers; philanthropic funders willing to invest in cultivating new school, authorizer and sector capacity; and advocates willing to maintain pressure for charter autonomy and quality. Most immediately, the legislation charges the State Board of Education to promulgate regulations to support implementation of the new law, and what those regulations look like will influence how statute plays out in practice.
Numerous advocates and organizations, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition, Greater Louisville Inc., the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Campaign for School Equity, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, worked to enable the passage of Kentucky's charter legislation. These organizations can't afford to rest on their laurels now, however. Now they must keep working to cultivate and attract great school founders for Kentucky; support authorizers in implementing quality practices; and broaden the coalition of support for charter schools.