As the Kentucky General Assembly enters serious consideration of a charter school bill in the 2017 legislative session, I have taken some time to reflect a bit on the charter school movement across the United States and in Kentucky. With the first charter school law passed in Minnesota now more than 25 years ago, charter schools are now a permanent fixture in the public education firmament. And while there has been pretty significant variation across the states in the details of charter school laws and some variation in the academic performance of charter schools, very few individuals or groups now regard the additional public school options created by charter school legislation as being anything but positive.
Public charter schools, as schools of choice, provide parents with additional public school options to choose from. It’s really that simple. While teachers unions and some traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP continue to paint charter schools as something they are not, the demand for public charter schools has never been greater, as evidenced by their continually expanding waiting lists all over the country. When you get down to the truth of this debate, regardless of whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a student, or a concerned community member, there is absolutely no reason to reasonably object to charter schools coming to Kentucky.
First and foremost, charter schools are schools to which parents choose to send their children. Children are neither assigned nor required to attend charter schools. As charter schools provide parents with additional school options, these new or converted schools provide parents with an additional public school choice. Parents who are uninterested in charter schools overall or in any particular charter school simply enroll their kids elsewhere.
Second, our ever-changing economy and demands of the workforce mean education and training must become more specialized than ever before. Charter school legislation allows for the creation of additional public schools capable of providing that needed degree of specialization. And because these are schools of choice, parents are able to choose among the various schools and programs provided both in traditional public school districts and in public charter schools.
Third, if charter schools don’t perform, there is a mechanism built into charter school laws that allows states to close them down. Much different than some traditional public schools and school districts that have been permitted to under-serve children, families, and communities for generations, charters are granted for specific periods of time; and if charter schools fail to meet the performance standards articulated in the charter contract, charter authorizers are called upon to not renew or revoke charter contracts. Those of us who are advocates for high quality public charter schools have no interest in creating additional public schools that will not serve children well. Frankly, Kentucky has too many of those schools already.
Finally, it’s no secret that Kentucky’s traditional public school districts and schools have struggled mightily to improve the academic performance of traditionally underperforming students, including children from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities. In fact in some Kentucky school districts, rather than closing achievement gaps, gaps are actually widening. School struggles raising students’ performance is in large part the result to the dominant one-size-fits-all/mass production model of public education. With such a model, students that don’t have typical academic needs and professional aspirations usually end up under-served by a system that caters to the typical student. The problem is very few of our students are typical in terms of their academic needs or career aspirations, so providing more specialized approaches for reaching and serving students should be at the top of our list of education priorities. Research and experience have shown us that public charter schools have been incredibly effective with the very populations of students traditional public schools have struggled to engage most, and that charter boards and operators have used the flexibility provided through charter laws to create schools that deliver the very specialized instruction our increasingly diverse population of students need to be prepared for success in the workplace and in postsecondary education and training programs.
Kentucky parents should be pleased that after years of charter school legislation being stalled in the legislature for political reasons, the passage of a law that will all charter schools to be established in the Commonwealth seems imminent. If the Kentucky General Assembly does in fact pass a charter school law during the 2017 legislative session, it will be first and foremost a victory for Kentucky’s students and parents. A new tool will have been added to the tool belts of state and local education leaders for addressing the Commonwealth’s continuing challenges in education and workforce development.