Previous month:
February 2022
Next month:
May 2022

March 2022

Will charter schools finally come to Kentucky?

Charter picThe Kentucky legislature has decided to redeem its failure to follow through on its flawed 2017 charter school law by trying again. HB 9 was introduced this week, and if passed as written it will correct a number of important problems with the 2017 law - which never yielded a single charter school - and may open the door to new educational options for thousands of Kentucky students.

As a long-standing supporter of charter schools, there is much that I admire in HB 9. It doesn't fully fund students, instead of systems, as I would prefer, but it goes a long way to creating a real possibility for high-performing charter options in some of our neediest districts.

Charter schools are public schools operated independently of local boards of education. They are tuition-free and open to all students. Most importantly, they are schools of choice, meaning no one can ever be compelled to attend a charter school. Students always go there because it's the first choice of their parents. And charter schools have consistently demonstrated outstanding student achievement results for students of color in urban areas. Read more about how charter schools work here.

Kentucky is one of only six states without charter schools.

In 2017, the state legislature passed a statewide charter school bill, but included a one-year funding mechanism. The next year they failed to take up the funding provision, and therefore no charter schools have opened in Kentucky. For five years Kentucky families who might have enjoyed the benefits of a charter school have been denied that option.

HB 9 addresses this problem by establishing a mechanism that would allow state and federal dollars to flow with a student to his or her chosen charter school. As long as the charter school is  also in the district where the student resides, local dollars would also follow, and also transportation dollars unless the district chose to deliver students to the charter school.

Other than fundraising, this transfer of dollars is the only way charter schools have of generating revenue. They depend on families choosing their services, and if they can't attract students, they can't stay open. HB 9 will mean charters that can draw students will have a reasonable shot at success.

HB 9 also addresses another serious problem with the 2017 law, which made local school districts the only entity that can authorize a charter school (the mayors of Lexington and Louisville could also choose to be authorizers, but neither has done so). Authorizers are the contract holders for charter schools, approving their application, providing oversight and making sure they meet their performance targets. But local school districts are never going to want to authorize a charter school that is going to compete directly with them for students. That puts both the charter applicant and the district in an unwinnable position. 

Also under the 2017 law, if a district denied a charter application the only appeal was to the Kentucky Board of Education. But in 2019, Governor Beshear fired all the members of the KBE on his first day in office, precisely because we were supporters of school choice. It's highly unlikely that the current board - appointed entirely by anti-school choice Beshear - is going to support a charter applicant in their effort to compete with local districts. 

HB 9 fixes these issues by creating new authorizers and a new appeals pathway. College and universities may select to be authorizers and special non-profit entities can be established for this purpose. More importantly, HB 9 creates a new statwide authorizing comission. While the governor will still appoint members of the commission, the bill tries to make the commission more politically independent and requires members to "have a stated commitment to charter schooling as an effective strategy for strengthening public education."

Applicants who are denied a charter by their first choice of authorizer my also appeal to the state authorizing commission instead of the Kentucky Board of Education.

Not every application for a charter will be high-quality. Authorizers should reasonably ensure that charter applicants have demonstrated a demand for a charter in their proposed community and assembled a plan for successfully meeting the needs of students. Applicants who don't should be denied. But charter applications should never be denied simply because authorizers or appeals boards don't want families to have choices other than the local public schools.  HB 9 strikes the right balance in this regard.

Unfortunately, HB 9 walks back the statewide nature of the 2017 charter law, stipulating that in any district with less than 5,000 students, the applicant must obtain a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from the local board of education, essentially offering their approval of the application. This will never happen, of course, unless the charter school is initiated by the local board itself. There is no appeal of this component of the bill. 

Less than 25 of Kentucky's 171 school districts have more than 5,000 students enrolled, so many, many communities are going to still be without the possibility of a charter school. This provision is clearly meant to give rural lawmakers cover to suport the bill since charters will not pose any competition to their local schools.

If there is a silver lining to this concession, though, it is that the demand for a charter school in small communities is probably already low. The districts serving over 5,000 students represent more than half of Kentucky's student population. And under public school choice provisions passed last year, students can cross district lines to attend a charter school, although local education dollars may not follow with them.

I wish HB 9 would have kept the option for charter schools statewide, but it nevertheless still represents a huge step forward in giving families new public school options.

For those who also support giving families more access to nonpublic schools, HB 9 also includes a provision that states that if the courts strike down last year's Education Opportunities Accounts (EOA) law, which only applied to the 8 largest counties, that program will immediately become statewide. This is a helpful failsafe to fend off the legal attack against school choice launched by public school districts last year.

It is not, however, sufficient to strengthen the EOA law and allow it to serve a maximum number of students. So lawmakers should continue to pursue and support HB 305 and SB 50 to make sure other education options besides charter schools are also available.

Of course the public school establishment will fight hard against this charter school bill, just like they fought hard against EOA's last year. Their loudest complaint is that charters are insufficiently "accountable." But charter schools face all the same accountability, transparency, and testing requirements as traditional public schools. They are more accountable, because if parents are unsatisfied with the services they are receiving, they can walk away. Low performing, poorly operated charter schools can be shut down, whereas low performing, poorly operated traditional public schools continue to suck down taxpayer dollars forever.

The real reason the establishment hates charter schools is that charters, homeschooling, private schools, and choice in general are a threat to their education monopoly for low and middle-income families (affluent familes already have school choice). Whatever value might accrue to those students by having another education option, the establishment values the dollars they represent far more, and are willing to bar the door to keep those children from leaving.

It's time for Kentucky to finally break down that door and give every family, regardless of income or zip code, the same kind of schooling options the affluent enjoy. HB 9 and HB 305 are important steps in that direction.

The image above is from the website of East End Preparatory Academy, a successful Nashville charter school serving high numbers of low-income minority students. Kentucky charters may provide similar opportunities for some our most vulnerable students.

Related posts: