With Kentucky’s election of conservative Republican Governor Matt Bevin, who included school choice as a part of his campaign platform, and Democrats coming closer by the day to losing control of the state House of Representatives, discussion of the passage of a charter school law in Kentucky has picked up significantly. In fact, I have never heard more discussion of what many education policy movers, shakers, and watchers are saying is the inevitable emergence of public charter schools in Kentucky. As a longtime advocate for the passage of strong public charter school legislation in Kentucky, I greet that conversation with cautious optimism.
It is true that the support of Governor Bevin, the support of newly appointed Education and Workforce Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner, and shaky control of the state House by Democrats, all contribute to a political environment in Kentucky that could be ripe for the passage of a strong charter school law. But even with a more favorable political environment, advocates for high quality charter schools should be more insistent than ever that Kentucky’s lawmakers get charter school legislation right. We have learned from other states successes and challeng
es that the details of charter school legislation matter tremendously.It is the provisions of the statute that set the framework what charter schools in a state will eventually become. Unfortunately, I believe the inclination of some educational leaders and lawmakers in Kentucky is to try to pass a charter school law that is most palatable to the traditional public education establishment, rather than passing a law that gives charter schools in Kentucky the greatest opportunity to be successful. Rather than putting first the academic well-being of children who will be served by Kentucky’s charter schools, I fear that some lawmakers find it preferable to please district and state-level education leaders and the organizations they represent. Make no mistake about it, the interests of children and the interests of education organizations are not always one in the same.
I have gone on record previously and I do so again in saying that I will not advocate for the passage of a weak charter school law. A charter school law in Kentucky that leads to the creation of no high quality public charter schools, or worse, leads to persistently low achieving public charter schools, would do more harm to children than good. As such, Kentucky would be better served by forgoing the passage of a weak charter school law, and having no charter school law at all.
There are many elements of a strong charter school law to be decided on, but there are a few essential elements that must be a part of Kentucky’s charter school law if it is to lead to successful public charter schools. Based on research, the successes and failures of other states, and good old fashion common sense, here are a few of those essential elements:
- Multiple Paths to Authorization. Kentucky’s charter school law must include more than one path to authorization for schools. Local school districts may serve as one of the charter authorizers, but groups applying for a charter must have at least one additional path to apply for charter authorization. Others states have experienced success with additional routes to charter authorization through independent charter school commissions, state boards of education, state commissioners or superintendents of education, city governments, and state-supported universities. All of these options should be considered in Kentucky. Providing charter schools with only one route to authorization through local school districts would leave the establishment and success of charters schools in Kentucky solely in the hands of organizations that have opposed the passage of charter school legislation.
- Academic Accountability. Kentucky’s charter school law must hold charter schools to the highest standards of academic performance accountability. Authorizers must be held accountable for granting charters only to groups that have a comprehensive plan for the success of the school. Authorizers must be held accountable for monitoring the academic performance of charter schools in their charge, intervening when needed, and not renewing or revoking schools’ charters when necessary. Public charter schools in Kentucky cannot be allowed to fail children and families year after year, generation after generation, as some of our traditional public schools have.
- Collective Bargaining. Kentucky’s charter schools must not be bound by collective bargaining agreements between teachers unions and local school districts. The provisions of such agreements limit the human resources autonomy of administrators in some of Kentucky’s traditional public schools. Specifically, provisions of such collective bargaining greatly limit school administrators’ ability to recruit, hire, supervise, evaluate, and if need be, terminate school personnel. As the charter school concept is based on providing schools with greater autonomy in exchange for higher levels of academic accountability, binding public charter schools with those restrictions would be counterproductive. A charter school law would not and could not, however, prevent teachers at Kentucky charter schools from forming their own unions if they so chose and collectively bargaining with their schools.
- Funding Equity. Kentucky’s public charter schools must receive funding that is equitable to traditional public schools. Public charter schools in some states have been crippled by receiving as little as half the per pupil dollar amount that would be allocated for a child attending a traditional public school. Such funding inequity would be unacceptable in a charter school law in Kentucky. Funding for public charter schools should be allocated in the same manner that funding for traditional public schools is allocated, on a per pupil basis. For every child whose parent chooses to enroll her in a public charter school, the same state, local, and federal dollars that would follow her to a district school should follow her to a public charter school.