Education

Superintendent Donna Hargens says Jefferson County Public Schools is working to ensure that Louisville families are aware of its offerings in anticipation of a new push for state charter school legislation.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is a charter school supporter. The Republican-majority state Senate has approved a bill that would authorize charter schools every year since 2010, and the legislation is expected to appear again during this session. The Democratic-controlled House has yet to vote on that legislation, but Republicans have narrowed their minority to just four votes, putting more pressure on the Democrats to hear — and potentially support — more conservative bills.

Generally, charter schools are institutions in which outside groups are given public funds to operate public schools. Charters are typically independent from local school systems and are freed of some regulatory requirements. Kentucky is among a handful of states that do not allow for charters.

Big changes could be in store for the state’s public school system if the legislation passes.

Hargens said one district strategy to fight charter school support is pushing the idea that Jefferson County parents already have a form of school choice, a key selling point of charters.

Hargens said Jefferson County Public Schools offer an array of magnet schools, and students also have access to private schools within Jefferson County.

“We want to make sure is that all of our families know they have access and choice within Jefferson County,” she said.

In recent years, the district has employed a mobile application bus that traverses the county to meet families where they are to help them apply and sign up for public school, Hargens said.

“I hope that we’ll have the opportunity to let people know about the choice that we already have in Jefferson County,” she said.

Still, some challenge the idea that school choice exists in Jefferson County.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said Hargens’ notion that Jefferson County Public Schools is similar to charter schools — in that the district offers school choice to students — “is either misleading or laughable.”

“In the Louisville area, if you have money you have choice,” he said. “If you have political connections or if you have kids that have rare talent, you have choice.”

But for struggling students or low-income families, Brooks said school choice is lacking. He said the “cornerstone” of charter schools is not the same as that of magnet programming. He called them “apples and oranges.”

That said, Brooks said there is room for both to co-exist within Louisville and the state.

“I, in no way, think charters are some singular silver bullet,” he said. “We think charters offer an important alternative, an important option for all kids, but especially vulnerable kids.”

The Rev. Milton Seymour, director of the Justice Resource Center and a charter school supporter, said there aren’t enough schools in Louisville to meet the needs of students.

Seymour said the notion of school choice and magnet program accessibility in Louisville is, indeed, misleading.

“Certain people are selected to go to these schools, it’s not really open to what I would think is the entire public,” he said.

State Rep. Jeff Hoover, a Republican from Jamestown, said he met with a group of charter school supporters from Louisville in summer 2014.

“These folks were just crying for an alternative,” he said. “They were begging for help.”

“I fully expect at some point in time a proposal for a limited number of charter schools,” Hoover said.

Charter schools opponents argue, in part, the the programs drain funding from public schools.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said charter schools are not a panacea that will solve the state’s education concerns.

“It can be done under the existing format,” he said. “But does that mean we should close our eyes to other options, no, I don’t think so.”

Brooks cautioned that if charter school legislation passes, state lawmakers should take heed to ensure that any changes made the state’s education system are done in the best interest of students.

“All charter schools are not working,” he said. “We, as a commonwealth, need to be smart about the kind of charters that we embrace.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.