After much talk about the possibility of “Race to the Top” influencing Kentucky to adopt charter school legislation, the Senate Education Committee today voted down an amendment that would have given life to the charter schools in the Commonwealth. The proposed measure would have only allowed for the conversion of chronically low-performing schools into charter schools. Critics of the proposed amendment argued that a last-minute change in the state’s Race to the Top application allowing for charter schools would have derailed the nearly unanimous support of the state’s school districts. In reality, however, unanimous support was not what lawmakers were afraid of losing. They were afraid of losing the support of the largest and arguably most influential district in Kentucky, Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisiville). Kentucky’s Education Commissioner said that the loss of district support of the application as a result of including charters could be more costly to the state’s application than not including the charter schools provision.
So for now, there will be no charter schools in Kentucky. But I do not believe that this is the end of charter school discussion in Kentucky. As I said in a post a while back, it’s been pretty interesting to me, a newcomer, listening to Kentuckians’ reactions to the charter school idea. It is as if “charter school” is a bad word here. And that’s fine. As I’ve said many times before, there are several good arguments against charter schools. For a look at some check out my a recent exchange on charter schools at The Edjurist. I guess the only thing that bothers me about the resistance to charter schools that I’ve heard in Kentucky is that most of it is misinformed.
So let’s start with the basics. The charter school idea was based on Henry Hudson’s charter with the East India Company to explore the Arctic in 1609. The document detailed the purpose of Hudson’s trip, the risks, accountability requirements, procedures for compensation, and rewards for productivity. Ray Budde, considered by many as the father of the charter school idea, thought that a charter between teachers and parents could be similarly developed and used. Budde’s idea gained popularity with then American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Albert Shanker, who then pushed through the adoption of the idea with the AFT. The first charter school legislation came in 1991 in Minnesota, and today 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some variant of charter school legislation, with over 4,000 charter schools now in operation, and over one million students attending charter schools nationwide.
Some of those national statistics are what give so many people the impression that charter schools are a singular policy concept, with charter schools operating the same way in every state. But the truth is, because charter schools are a state-level reform, the idiosyncrasies of both individual charter schools and the state legislation that authorizes them make it difficult to speak of charters as a monolithic movement. For example, charter schools in Arizona are based on the assumption that market-like competition will bring about improvement in public schools, while Georgia’s charter school policy is not based on competition at all. Just about the only things that can be said about charter schools generally is that they are grounded in site-based management theory, which espouses that key decisions should be made at the school building level as opposed to the district central office or the state level. Other than that, however, there is extreme variation across states in terms of what charter schools are and how they operate.
So here is my issue: If charter school policies are written at the state level, meaning individual states decide what charter schools are, who can authorize them, how they will be authorized, how they will be held accountable, who they will be held accountable to, and how they will be funded; what is it about the general charter school concept that Kentuckians are so adamantly opposed to? It is completely natural that state teachers unions would oppose a charter school policy that does not require charter school teachers to be state certified. I get that. But who says that a charter school policy has to include that kind of provision. Any survey of state charter school policies shows clearly that a charter school is whatever a state wants it to be. And to be honest, charter schools in many states don’t operate significantly different than traditional public schools in Kentucky with school-based decision making councils. If someone is fundamentally opposed to school decentralization, and holds that many school decisions should in fact be made at levels higher than the school building administration, then yes, it is understandable that that persons would be opposed to the charter school concept. But that person would also be opposed to school-based decision making in any form.
Whether or not Kentucky ever adopts charter school legislation is not important to me. But what is important to me is that Kentuckians discuss and even debate the real issues; not misperceptions of issues. The education of children in Kentucky is too important to shut out possibilities because we don’t want to take the time to truly understand new ideas and have substantive, not political, discussions about them. I make this argument about charter schools and any other education policy issue that comes around. I say to my students all the time, you can take any position you want, but be able to substantiate it. Charter schools may not be right for Kentucky, but we need to do the work of coming to that conclusion.The decisions that we make about our children’s education must be based on reason; not feelings, not politics, and not what friends in other states say. Let’s do things right Kentucky. We owe it to our kids.