According to a superficially-reported story from WKYT television, Representative Brad Montell of Shelbyville has pre-filed a bill (BR 117) for the 2012 Kentucky General Assembly authorizing local communities to establish public charter schools. Democrat leaders of the House have already suggested such proposals are dead on arrival, but Rep. Montell is to be commended for his efforts at expanding school choice for more Kentucky families.
The WKYT story incorrectly reports that "charter schools are alternatives to public schools." In fact, charter schools are public schools, but they operate with far greater autonomy than a normal public school. Principals and teachers in charter schools typically have a lot more leeway in hiring, managing teacher labor arrangements, and overseeing budgets and curriculum. The local school board, central office, and state department of education have far less authority in these respects than over typical public schools.
In the story, Kentucky Education Association president Sharron Oxendine says she opposes the bill:
"A similar bill proposed a couple of years ago would have allowed less qualified teachers to teach in charter schools, and those schools often close because of lack of fundng," KEA President Sharron Oxendine said. "We feel we need to fully fund public schools, and we haven't gotten conclusive evidence that charter schools would improve education in Kentucky. Why can't we find what's good in charter schools and apply it to every public school?"
Oxendine seems to miss several key points about charter schools. She is right that many charter schools are allowed to employ teachers without regard to their particular certification areas. This is one of the features that maximizes charter schools' flexibility. An outstanding elementary reading teacher might be employed to work with middle school students who are struggling to meet literacy standards - an option not always available in normal public schools - for example. Or a particularly talented chemistry teacher with some background - but no certification - in physics might be employed to teach this hard-to-fill subject area. Obviously, having people highly trained in their subject areas is a plus, but sometimes there are more important characteristics in a teacher than the papers in her personnel file.
And Oxendine is also right that sometimes charter schools are closed down because of lack of funding, or lack of enrollment, or otherwise poor performance. But this also distinguishes an important point about charter schools. Few charter school advocates suggest that just having a charter school will guarantee student success or improved performance from the public schools with which they compete. They are not silver bullets that solve all our educational problems, and data on student achievement in charter schools is decidedly mixed.
Charter schools are just a tool to expand educational options available to parents, especially in impoverished urban and rural areas where few such options currently exist or where many parents can't afford them. Just like public schools, charter schools will have to offer excellent curricula and outstanding instruction to get good results. But charter schools that fail to deliver a high-quality education that satisfies parents and students will go out of business, unlike failing public schools that will just continue to suck up taxpayer money and carry on business as usual.
Which brings us to the last missed point in Oxendine's comments. Despite the budget cuts of recent years, public funding for education has skyrocketed (as much as 30 percent) over the last three decades, while student achievement has remained mostly flat. There is no reason to believe that throwing more money at schools as they are currently structured will make a remarkable difference in learning outcomes.
One thing Oxendine gets partly right, though, is her suggestion that we should apply what's good about charter schools to [regular] public schools. I'm all for giving teachers and principals maximum autonomy, but also maximum accountability. That means that when schools fail to deliver the goods, they are shut down and replaced. And that can only happen if there are meaningful educational options available for all parents and students.