Kentucky Votes Yes on Federal Money, No on Charter Schools

Published January 24, 2010

If President Obama visited Democratic lawmakers in Kentucky he would stand out, and not just because he’s the president. Most of the Democrats in that state’s governing body don’t share his support for charter schools.

“Is the president an anomaly on the issue? If he were a Kentucky Democrat, he certainly would be,” said state Rep. Stan Lee (R-Lexington). “There might be some support among Democrats here, but it’s not overwhelming support.”

Chicago, Obama’s hometown, ranks fifth nationwide in the number of charter school students. During his 2008 campaign, Obama said what helped students in Chicago might help students elsewhere.

“I’ve been very clear about the fact—and sometimes I’ve gotten in trouble with the teachers unions on this—that we should be experimenting with charter schools,” Obama told Fox News in April 2008.

Charter-Like Schools

But Kentucky Democrats hold a different point of view, turning back a charter proposal already this year.

In the first two weeks of the year, the two chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly put together a school-reform bill authorizing the state to fire or reassign critically below-average schools’ teachers and school administrators or even close the schools and reopen them under private management. Currently 11 schools are candidates for intervention, according to state Rep. Carl Rollins (D-Midway), sponsor of the House version.

Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed the bill on January 14. Kentucky is applying for a share of the federal government’s Race to the Top funds, which the U.S. Department of Education will distribute to states whose school systems score enough points on a 500-point system.

States earn extra points if they support charter schools. All applications had to be in by January 19, according to the Department of Education—hence the Kentucky lawmakers’ rush. States missing the deadline have to wait for the second round of application approvals in May.

Beshear and the Assembly reached agreement on the package only after the House struck proposals by Lee and state Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville) to take the bill a step further and allow charter schools.

The measure’s provision for private takeovers of failing schools may sound like charters, but it isn’t. The private firms would have to run their schools in accordance with all existing laws and requirements in effect for any other public schools. Charter schools, by contrast, have some operational autonomy.

Against Charters

Rollins acknowledged the state won’t win any points on the charter-school criterion, but he hopes the bill might be an acceptable compromise.

“It’s as close as we get to charter schools,” he said.

Rollins opposed the charter-school amendments, as did most of his Democratic colleagues. With a 65-35 majority in the House and a large minority (17 out of 38 seats) in the Senate, they had more than enough votes to prevent the amendments’ passage.

“I don’t think charter schools work everywhere. I don’t think they work well in rural districts. And we have a lot of rural districts,” Rollins said.

He says in a rural setting where resources and people are few, it’s better to consolidate eggs in the public-school basket.

“I think in rural districts, to take resources away from the public schools would be fairly harmful,” he said.

He also questions whether the greater autonomy of charter schools necessarily leads to better results.

“We also have concern they don’t have to follow all the same certification for teachers,” he said.

‘Turned a Deaf Ear’

Few things about the state’s Jefferson County, however, are rural. With 713,877 people, the capital city of Frankfort, according to the Census Bureau, is as metropolitan as Baltimore or the District of Columbia—two places charter schools have yielded impressive results. And with 11.2 percent of its families living at or below the federal poverty line, the county clearly has a lot of young people in need.

“In Jefferson County there are a number of very low-performing schools. Most of those are inner city schools, and a lot of those are populated with minority students,” said Lee. “But the Jefferson County legislators, who should be most affected by these voters, have turned a deaf ear to them.”

Union Power, No Options

He believes those legislators were listening instead to teachers unions, many of which actively oppose charter schools.

“The unions might not have the control over the teachers as much if they’re in a charter school. That’s the rub,” Lee said. “Teachers who have collective bargaining now would not have it in a charter school. Teachers would be held to a different standard.”

However, he notes, less power for teachers unions potentially means more power for parents who have a way out of subpar public school systems.

“There are a lot of children who are stuck in a low-performing public school. Their parents have no other option,” Lee said.

Try Again

The U.S. Department of Education will have to decide whether to approve Kentucky’s reforms. Lee hopes it does not.

“I think at that point charter schools [would] have a better chance to be considered for the second round of applications,” he said. “I hope we haven’t missed an opportunity.”

That’s the one way the state could get some real reform that helps students, parents,, and teachers alike, he says.

“Public schools are failing. Let’s try something different,” Lee said.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.