Kentucky is one of seven states that do not allow charter schools, but the state’s board of education recently approved a set of charter school guidelines, signaling its anti-choice policy may change soon.
Charter schools are publicly funded, privately run schools. In November 2016, the Kentucky Board of Education met for a study session to learn about charters. In December, the 12-member board approved a list of recommendations for policymakers considering charter legislation in the future.
The board said it should have final authority in approving and overseeing charter schools, which it said should be run by nonsectarian nonprofit organizations. Other recommendations include certifying teachers by Kentucky’s Education Professional Standards Board and granting charters access to state funding for facilities.
A Political Issue
Kentucky’s electorate voted largely in favor of Donald Trump in November, which helped Republicans earn significant victories for GOP legislative candidates across the state. Previously controlled by Democrats, Kentucky’s House emerged from the 2016 general election cycle firmly under Republican control, 64 seats to 36 for Democrats.
Dick Innes, an education analyst at the Kentucky Bluegrass Institute, says with a Republican governor, a substantial Republican majority in the House, and a Republican majority in the Senate, prospects for school choice in the state are finally looking up.
“The problem has been that, unlike a lot of states, until recently, the teachers union has had firm control of the state House of Representatives, even the governor’s office,” Innes said. “For nearly 10 years, bills on charter schools have been forwarded, but it was difficult to get them heard because they were killed in the House previously.”
Gary Houchens, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research at Western Kentucky University and a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, says charters have been a partisan political issue in Kentucky.
“Whereas charter schools have been a bipartisan issue in many other states, in Kentucky, lawmakers have divided on the issue along clear party lines,” Houchens said. “The education establishment sees charter schools as a threat to school district control of education and worries about the consequences of introducing choice into the education system.”
‘We Need to Do Better’
Innes says Kentucky’s public schools have consistently scored very poorly compared to public schools in other states.
“Over 40 states, plus Washington, DC, scored better than our students,” Innes said. “Even the most enthusiastic public school supporters agree there are serious problems and that we need to do better.
“Charter school support comes from a diverse coalition,” said Houchens. “Some are frustrated parents and community leaders from some of our urban areas, who see kids trapped in perpetually failing district schools and want more options for low-income families. The business community sees charters as a means of bringing innovation and improvement into the education system, which would have positive implications for the recruitment of new industries and economic growth. And many educators believe charters can be a mechanism for education experimentation, diversification of instructional approaches, and for addressing our intractable achievement gaps.”
‘Pretty Confident’ of Charter Prospects
Innes says he’s optimistic 2017 will be the year Kentucky finally makes progress on charter schools.
“I’m pretty confident we’ll see [charter school] legislation, and for the first time ever, it will get a full and open discussion in the Kentucky Legislature,” Innes said.
Houchens says he’s happy with the guidelines he and other board members approved for legislators.
“I had personal disagreements with a few items on the list, but I was pleased the board was able to mostly agree to advance a set of principles that could guide strong legislation when the General Assembly takes up the issue in January,” Houchens said.
“My experiences have taught me that no school, no matter how good, can meet the needs of every single child, and so parents should have options,” Houchens said. “Choice won’t solve every problem in the education system, but it’s one tool that can bring positive consequences for many children, one that I heartily support.”
Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.