The struggle to make Kentucky one of the last states to embrace school choice is going to be an ugly one. The first charter school bill of the upcoming General Assembly has been introduced, but it is a charade of a law filed by a long-time charter school opponent and meant to head off a more meaningful bill. Now the state's attorney general is intimating he may try to hold up charter legislation as unconstitutional.
These are not just the lengths people will take to deny low- and middle-income families a choice in who educates their own children. This is the sign of an educational system that seeks adult interests and the preservation of its power over all other considerations. As I wrote last week, those who advocate school choice must be clear with themselves, with their opponents, and with the public about what is at stake.
Many Kentuckians, and especially those who work in schools, have come to take for granted a system of educational delivery that functions as a government-run monopoly for most families. And while many parents are happy with their local district schools, and while we have a collective obligation to ensure that all schools are high-quality and well-funded, the time has long passed to end school districts' monopolistic control of K-12 education. But the defenders of the monopoly will have to be confronted directly.
Senator Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) has repeatedly voted against charter school legislation, until last year when he supported an amended proposal that would only allow district-run charter schools. This year, knowing that with a Republican majority General Assembly a charter law will finally prevail, Sen. Neal has preemptively filed a bill that will allow only four charter schools, two each for Jefferson and Fayette Counties, all of which would be under district-control.
I have no objections to district-run charters. But what Sen. Neal's bill lacks is a mechanism whereby families could choose a school that is not run by the district. Autonomy is one of the hallmarks of charter schools, increasing their capacity for innovation and heightening accountability. But of course, autonomy also provides a source of competition. Sen. Neal and his supporters know that if families choose an autonomous charter school, the district will no longer have control of the education dollars allotted for that student. And they want to maintain control of that money above all else.
This focus on funding is at the heart of Democrat Attorney General Andy Beshear's warning to lawmakers about potential charter school legislation (is it the norm for AG's to opine about laws they haven't even formally reviewed?). Beshear points to provisions in the Kentucky Constitution requiring an "efficient" system of "common schools." He cautions: "I think that the legislature needs to be careful that money they're going to siphon out of the public school system they are replacing." He questions whether charter schools would be "common schools" under the law.
For the record: charter schools are public schools. They must be open to all applicants and cannot charge tuition. They are governed by a performance contract outlined under state law and monitored and approved by their authorizing body. When a family selects to send their child to a charter school, the education dollars allocated for that student follow to the new school.
But it is true that school choice policies, including charter schools, stretch our thinking about what makes a school public (what we usually mean by the word "common"). The idea that education dollars are for the benefit of children, and not institutions, and should follow children to the school of their families' choice puts a major crack in the monopoly of local school districts to deliver and control education.
I've previously written about why this monopolistic system is insufficient. It's not because teachers and administrators in district schools aren't dedicated and hard-working. It's because, despite the real education progress we've made in Kentucky, the rate of improvement is too sluggish and the size of our achievement gaps are too great. The system itself cannot, by its very design, meet the challenges of educating all students to proficiency.
What are the public purposes of education? To ensure a learned, virtuous citizenry, capable of taking care of themselves and others economically, contributing to the good of their communities, and participating fully in (and helping to preserve) our democratically-governed republic? I think most Kentuckians would agree to that. But a monopoly of government-run schools is not required for that purpose. In fact, I would argue that our system isn't delivering well on that vision, and that other kinds of education providers can ably serve this public purpose (see my recent blog post on this topic).
There is a kernel of legitimate concern in those who worry about a choice-based education system. What happens to students whose families lack the resources to take full advantage of their options? What happens in schools that may be largely populated by such students? First, I would say that as a public good, education needs to be more generously funded so that schools of all types have more resources to meet their missions. Strong funding in a choice based system promotes even more educational options. New schools may open, offering even greater diversity in the learning options and types of students served, and be more responsive to students' individual needs, especially for those at highest risk for failure. Choice programs are designed specifically for the benefit of low-income students, since affluent families already have a greater measure of options available to them.