Kentucky Senate Passes Historic Charter-Schools Bill

Published February 14, 2011

The Kentucky state Senate has passed a bill opening the state to charter schools, overcoming opposition from the state’s teachers union and culminating nearly a decade of work by school reformers in the Bluegrass State.

Senate Bill 3 would establish a state charter authorizer. The bill also would permit parents to send their children to neighborhood schools, a  controversial proposal in Louisville where a busing program has come under federal court scrutiny in recent years. The bill, which passed the state Senate in January by a vote of 21-17, awaits a vote in the Kentucky House of Representatives.

The Senate vote marked the first time in state history a school choice bill has been approved in a floor vote by either of Kentucky’s legislative chambers.

Choice Supporters Claim Momentum
“Senate Bill 3 demonstrates that the school-choice issue has finally received some legitimate traction in the commonwealth of Kentucky,” said Pastor Jerry Stephenson, minister of the West End Church of Christ in inner-city Louisville and chairman of the Kentucky Education Restoration Alliance, a grassroots coalition led by black pastors and local activists.

Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville), who is seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination against Louisville businessman and Tea Party favorite Phil Moffett, made the charter school bill part of his aggressive agenda for the first week of this year’s legislative session, a time normally reserved for choosing caucus leaders and other organizational matters.

Stephenson says the Senate vote shows momentum is on school reformers’ side.

“It won’t go back now; it can only go forward,” Stephenson said. “Any elected official that does not have a vision for charter schools … really doesn’t have a vision to raise education in our commonwealth.”

Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville), who filed charter legislation in the House for the third consecutive year, said it’s important to keep the issue from getting lost. Montell says negative media coverage of the state’s failure to win a piece of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grant money in August provided new impetus for reformers. Lawmakers’ failure to pass a charter law hurt Kentucky’s application, Montell said.
 “We have to keep this out front so that it won’t get buried and lost,” he said. “We have to keep it in the public view.”

Bill Alters Busing Plans
By including a provision in SB 3 to allow parents to choose a school closest to their residence and avoid busing their children dozens of miles away, Williams invited heated responses from Jefferson County school board members who showed up to testify at a Jan. 4 hearing.

Whereas most school choice legislation is intended to allow parents the right to send their children to a school other than the neighborhood, or “assigned” school, Williams said the Jefferson County (Louisville) Public Schools’ chaotic student-assignment plan equally discourages parental involvement in their children’s education.

“What this bill attempts to do is to reconnect that parent, … to give them the information and the proximity to get involved in the school in their neighborhood, and to get their child off the bus and back into the school that’s near them for the purpose of improving their education,” Williams told the Senate Education Committee.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Louisville school district’s busing plan in 2007. The court ruled in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education school districts could not use race in student assignment plans.

The district, led by Superintendent Sheldon Berman, drafted a new assignment plan in 2008 based on socioeconomic factors. That plan now is being challenged by parents of elementary school-age children, including kindergartners, who are forced to endure long bus rides and even transfer, in some cases, between buses. (Berman’s contract was not renewed.)

Longtime JCPS board member Carol Haddad argued dense student populations and limited financial resources would result in some schools being overcrowded while others would suffer sizeable drops in attendance if parents were allowed the neighborhood option.

“You want the impossible dream,” she told Williams during the January hearing.
Costs Debated
Board member Linda Duncan claims the bill’s neighborhood schools proposal would cost $220 million in additional transportation and school-construction costs, a claim repeated by Sen. Tim Shaughnessy (D-Louisville) during Senate floor debate. Duncan could not provide sources for the higher costs when questioned by Sen. Denise Harper Angel (D-Louisville). Angel voted against the measure.
Board members and several legislators also claimed the neighborhood schools policy would resegregate schools, a claim both Williams and Stephenson vehemently denied.

“It has no other purpose and no other intent except to allow the village to help raise the child, to return the previous community concept to schools so that parents and teachers can have proximity,” Williams said. “If you want to move anybody, move teachers, give differentiated pay to teachers, do individual lesson plans in difficult schools, and do voluntary programs to move kids.”

Stephenson said he doesn’t have a problem with older high school children being bused but it’s the wrong policy for younger pupils.

“The problem is in our elementary schools, and it’s because you’re taking the nurturing years out of these children,” he said. “Our babies in preschool and elementary school, they need to be in those neighborhoods where mama and ‘big mama’ … can steer them in the right direction.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky