The latest salvo in the battle for expanded school choice in Kentucky was launched this week with a summit announcing the formation of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association. Organized by Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, my University of Kentucky colleague Dr. Wayne Lewis, and other choice supporters, the event held in Louisville also featured Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul lending their support for charter schools.
Kentucky is one of only eight states in which charter schools are still illegal.
As in recent years, Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville) and Sen. Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green) will introduce legislation that would establish a pathway for charter schools to be established in Kentucky districts with chronically low-performing schools.
I have spent 17 years in education, working as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, district administrator, and now as a university professor training the next generation of school leaders. My experiences in the education industry - and as a parent - have confirmed over and over again that expanding school choice options is one of the best things we can do for families, and for schools.
You can read more about what charter schools are, and how they work, here.
My views are not meant to disparage in any way the outstanding work of thousands of dedicated, hard-working teachers and administrators in traditional public schools. There are many excellent schools across the state. But the presence of well-intentioned and even highly effective educators doesn't diminish the need for school choice, and I wish more of my colleagues in universities and in the P-12 field of practice would recognize that.
To the contrary, the Kentucky Education Association and many P-12 leaders, both individually and collectively through their professional organizations, have been among the most vocal opponents to expanded school choice and have used their considerable political clout to shut down every choice bill introduced in the Democrat-controlled Kentucky House of Representatives.
I believe that many of these choice opponents are sincere in their concerns about charter schools and vouchers, and while I have enormous respect and admiration for many of the P-12 leaders who have voiced their opposition on these matters (and consider many of them personal friends), their arguments do not stand up to scrutiny.
I don't intend to use this post to address all those arguments. You can read my collected posts on this topic here, though I do recommend the following articles or blog posts:
- "Autonomy, accountability make charter schools worthwhile" (Lexington Herald-Leader)
- " Law allows school innovation but does little to offer choice" (my commentary, also from the Herald-Leader, on why simply giving traditional public schools charter-like autonomy is not enough)
- "Nothing magical about charter schools, but choice in education is still a good thing" (blog post addressing the argument that charter schools won't magically make all schools better - which is true)
I'd like to reserve my comments here for addressing one of the most common arguments against charter schools: that they drain money from already-underfunded traditional public schools. There is some truth to this argument, though it reveals some flawed reasoning about where education funds come from and who is best qualified to decide how those funds are allocated, and ultimately does not make the case against charter schools.
It is true that school funding has taken a heavy hit since the recession of 2008. Critics of public education often point out the uncomfortable fact that, despite skyrocketing increases in education spending in recent decades, student achievement is largely the same as it was in the early 1970's. Perhaps we weren't getting our money's worth from our education dollars to begin with?
It's worth noting, however, that the mission of education in the United States has substantially changed since the 1970's. Schools are now expected to educate every single student to proficiency, a challenge no other industrialized country has ever set for itself, in spite of an increasingly diverse student population, the disintegration of the traditional family, and a permanent underclass perpetually dependent on the welfare state for its subsistence. Student achievement has not improved much, but we're also not measuring achievement of the same kinds of students we once did.
For this reason, I agree that education should be better funded. But this doesn't change the basic case for school choice. The arguments for choice are so strong, and the condition of learning in some schools is so deplorable, especially for poor and minority students, that I am not willing to support increases in school funding (and the tax increases that would surely accompany them) without substantial reforms in education, including the implementation of charter schools.
Under the proposed Kentucky charter legislation, if families did choose to send their child to a charter school (a lottery system would ensure that all interested families get an equal shot), then the state's educational funding would follow the child.
True, that is money that the school to which student was originally assigned won't get. But that money did not belong to the school to begin with.
Education dollars belong to taxpayers who contribute an enormous sum of their incomes to fund public schooling. As Kevin Williamson points out, this burden falls heavily on the poor, a fact few people realize. Because low-income families are far more likely to rent, they pay the full costs of their landlord's property taxes without the tax benefits of home ownership. Thus, the poor pay a disproportionate share of school taxes and often receive the lowest quality school services.
When public school leaders oppose charters and choice, they are essentially telling these families, "We are going to take your money, and we are barring the door to keep you from leaving to educate your child elsewhere."
It is arrogant and paternalistic when politicians and bureaucrats think they know better than you how to spend your own money. But it's just plain offensive when they profess to know what kind of education is best for your children.
Charter schools give parents another option for how to spend their education tax dollars. Certainly their choice may mean less money for some other school, but it was never that school's money to begin with.