General Assembly passes charter school bill

By Lexington Herald Leader

Kentucky is on the verge of joining 43 other states that have charter schools.

The state Senate voted 23 to 15 late Wednesday afternoon to allow

charter schools and sent the measure to the House, which gave House Bill

520 final approval on a 53-43 vote and sent it to Gov. Matt Bevin to

sign into law or veto.

Bevin spoke on behalf of the bill Wednesday morning before the Senate

Education Committee approved it and sent it to the full Senate for its

afternoon vote.

Several Democrats in the Senate argued during a lengthy debate that the bill needed more work.

“It’s not ready for prime time,” said Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville,

who unsuccessfully tried to amend HB 520, sponsored by House Education

Chairman John Carney, R-Campbellsville.

Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, questioned the

constitutionality of the bill while Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington,

said the legislation would give for-profit companies access to $5

billion in public K-12 school funding.

Proponents of the bill argued that charter schools will address the

achievement gap for many vulnerable children in Kentucky and offer

parents another choice.

Kentucky has schools that have failed for generations, Bevin told the

committee earlier in the day. He said charter schools are not a silver

bullet, but they also don’t mean the end of public education as charter

opponents maintain. He said it gives a community a chance to offer a

better choice.

“This is the right thing to do,” Bevin said. He noted that the Senate had approved charter school bills in the past.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that its even needing a debate at this

point. This idea that some would say, ‘We’re not ready, we haven’t had

time. We haven’t studied it.’ Really? Has there been anything more ...

well-discussed in the last weeks, months and frankly, years in Kentucky

... that more directly affects our young people in Kentucky?. I would

say no.”

The Senate Education Committee vote was 9-3, with Sens. Neal, Thomas, and Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, voting no.

The Senate approval came late in the 2017 General Assembly while

lawmakers from both chambers have spent the last few days negotiating

the bill’s details.

In public charter schools, an organizer would enter into a

performance-based contract, or charter, with an oversight board or

entity that spells out the school’s governance, funding, accountability

and flexibility. A public charter school would be part of the state’s

system of public education.

But public charter schools would be exempt from state school laws and

regulations, except those affecting health, safety, civil, and

disability rights. The public charter schools would have to be

non-sectarian.

Local school boards and the mayors of Louisville and Lexington could

approve and oversee an unlimited number of charter schools under the

bill beginning in 2017-18.

Applicants who are turned down could appeal to the Kentucky Department

of Education. A collaboration of local districts could set up a regional

charter school. Carney said that only students in a local school

district could attend a charter school in that district.

A separate appropriations bill, which the Senate and House approved

Wednesday evening hours after it was unveiled in the Senate budget

committee, sketched out the funding model for charter schools.

Under House Bill 471, federal and per-pupil state funding would be

allocated to charter schools just as it would any other public schools,

but locally-raised money, such as property tax revenue, would not.

School districts or mayors could keep 3 percent of a charter school’s

state funding as an “authorizer fee.”

Charter schools would be eligible for state transportation funds if the

local school district refused to provide them with transportation

services. But they would not be eligible for the capital outlay funds

the state provides school districts for construction projects based on

the districts’ student population.

Carney said the charter school bill gives enrollment preferences to

children with special needs, at-risk students and students from

low-performing schools.

Senators made a number of language revisions to the version the House passed, but no immediately apparent large-scale changes.

One of the changes was that the mayors of Louisville and Lexington would

have to make a request to the Kentucky Board of Education if they

wanted to approve and oversee charter schools. Senate President Pro Tem

David Givens, R-Greensburg, said the Senate version also ensures that

teachers are qualified.

In another Senate change, the legislation says public charter schools

don’t have to provide extra curricular activities. But if they do,

participants must comply with eligibility requirements of non-charter

schools. If a charter school does not offer any interscholastic athletic

activity, a student is eligible to participate at the school the

student would attend based on the student’s residence.

The Kentucky Education Association, an educator’s group, opposed the legislation.

“Opening a parallel system of public schools that has the potential to

take away from our current traditional system of schools is certainly

not what’s in the best interest of children,” KEA President Stephanie

Winkler said during the committee meeting.