Last week Representative John "Bam" Carney, chair of the House Education Committee, introduced House Bill 520, and on Tuesday Governor Bevin held a press conference with Carney and Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Hal Heiner to announce his support. While there will undoubtedly be debates and proposed amendments, the press conference signaled that HB 520 is the charter law Republican leadership is going to champion. It's likely to make Kentucky the 44th state to embrace charter schools.
Or will it? While there is much for school choice supporters to like about HB 520, its authorizing mechanism is such that it can either make Kentucky a model for well-designed and supporter charter schools, or it might kill any meaningful possibility of charter schools at all.
There are things to like about HB 520 for sure. Unlike some earlier proposals for Kentucky charter schools, it does not require a pilot program or limit charters to specific geographical regions. This means that charters could theoretically be started throughout the state - at least in communities where there is enough demand to make this a reasonable possibility. It's hard to imagine an independent charter school being successful in our more rural areas, though it is technically possible, and there are some good models for how this might work from other states. Charters seem more likely in urban and metropolitan areas where the demand is higher and more sustainable. HB 520 also does not limit the number of charters that can be opened, so that increases the possibility of real growth in the charter sector.
The bill requires charter schools to admit students by lottery if enrollment capacity is not exceeded by applications, and charter schools may not use any other admissions requirements, though preference is to be given for students who live within the local district, and schools can also prioritize those who receive free and reduced-price lunch [sentence corrected for accuracy].
The bill does include a requirement that local districts must provide transportation for charter school students to their charter schools. It's good that there is attention to transportation funding, but I would have preferred that the transportation funds just go to the charter school, which could then provide its own mechanisms for transporting students. I worry that this provision will be a real complication for the local school districts. [UPDATE: Dr. Wayne Lewis, who is on loan from the University of Kentucky to the Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development, offers some helpful clarity on the transportation issue here.]
But the potential problem lies in how charter schools would be authorized. HB 520 stipulates that charter applications must be authorized by local boards of education. If a local board turns down a charter application it can be appealed to the state board of education in a complicated process that basically requires the local board to say "no" twice, and then the state board can authorize the charter application, but will serve as co-authorizer with the same district that did not want the charter school in the first place.
In general, I believe that a good charter law would include multiple paths to authorization. Local boards should certainly be authorizers, but charter applications should also be able to go directly to the state board of education, or an independent authorizing commission, or to some other entity like a university. Providing multiple authorizers increases the chances of growing the charter sector quickly throughout the state, with a wider variety of kinds of schools serving a diverse base of students.
Besides the potential limitations in charter growth and diversity, the biggest problem with local boards serving as the only authorizer is that most local boards of education have been vocally opposed to the concept of charter schools to begin with. They view charters as competition because if students choose to leave the district school, some or all of the education funding would go with them. Looked at this way, having local boards authorize autonomous charter schools is like having Ford authorize new plants for General Motors. There is no natural incentive for them to approve new charters, and lots of pressure from adult forces within the district to stop the authorization of new charters at all costs.
Even with the appeal to the state board of education, the entire process becomes subject to the attitude of state board members. A change in the state board could signal an abrupt stop to all charter growth.
I am told by people who helped craft HB 520 that there are potential complications in case law associated with Kentucky's constitution that would make multiple authorizers difficult. I don't understand all that at this point, as I don't see why funds can't flow to the local district and then be dispersed to a charter school via an independent authorizer. Maybe I will learn more about that in days ahead. Attorney General Andy Beshear has already made noise hinting that he will file suit against any charter bill that becomes law, so courts will probably weigh in on all these matters eventually.
At any rate, if HB 520 becomes law as written, the battle for charter schools will shift to local boards of education, and eventually to the Kentucky Board of Education. Despite the potential limitations, this scenario is not all bad. If local boards of education are approving the contracts (the "charter" from which the schools derive their name) that govern new schools, they cannot claim that charter schools will operate without sufficient oversight and accountability. For example, HB 520 includes a provision for virtual charter schools. Like many educators, I have some concerns about virtual charters because their performance and management in other states has traditionally be quite poor. But local boards can stipulate any accountability and oversight measures into the charter for such schools before authorizing them. HB 520 might give local board of education too much power in this regard, but it certainly eliminates the complaint from local districts that charter schools aren't accountable to anyone.
A move in this direction could actually set the stage for a real shift in the role of local boards of education, if board members will embrace the opportunity. I believe that all schools should have more charter-like autonomy. I look forward to the day, described eloquently in Paul T. Hill and Ashley Jochim's excellent little book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, when the role of local boards of education is not to essentially run local schools, but rather to authorize a set of autonomous schools of choice, that are answerable back to that board in terms of student performance, financial accountability, etc. It's a shift in the role of the board, to be sure, but one that is no less invested in the well-being and success of students.
If local and state board members begin to see that their duty is not to prop up the various institutions of education delivery (whether effective or ineffective) but rather to serve students and to support a multitude of options that can best meet those students' needs, then charter schools have a chance to thrive in Kentucky regardless of the details in HB 520.
Update, 3/6/17: On Friday, March 3, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed HB 520, amending it to remove virtual charter schools from consideration ("format" delivery combining face-to-face and online learning is still permissible), and making the mayors of Lexington and Louisville potential authorizers. The bill moves on to the Senate Education committee for consideration.
Update, 3/27/17: HB 520 ultimately passed both houses of the state legislature and was quietly signed by Governor Bevin last week. Now we move into phase of writing regulations and beginning implementation. This summary of the situation nicely captures my own hopes - and concerns - for the future.
Image: The Kentucky School Choice Rally was held in Frankfort on January 27, 2017.
Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (where I work) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).
- A School Choice Primer, Part I
- A School Choice Primer, Part II
- A School Choice Primer, Part III
- Kentucky School Choice Rally: text (and video) of my comments
- A visit to two charter schools
- Baby steps for school choice