Education Politics

Kentucky is one of seven states in the U.S. that doesn’t allow charter schools. But the General Assembly is likely to soon approve a bill that would make the organizations a reality in the Bluegrass.

Lawmakers will return next week to consider the measure. In the meantime, 89.3 WFPL is taking a look at the issue from all sides this week.

In our first installment we ask: What are charter schools, and are they effective?

Lay of the Land

Supporters have pushed to open Kentucky up to charter schools for years, but opponents, most notably the state teacher’s union, successfully lobbied to keep the policy from passing enabling legislation into law.

During a legislative hearing last year, Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner gave an impassioned speech in favor of charters, calling out the Kentucky Educators Association for opposing them.

“The standard traditional public school is not working for children that have significant gaps in their life,” Heiner said. “So I’ll ask you: When will we put children before adults? When will we stop drinking the KEA’s stagnant water? They are the lead opposition in this. They’ve fought it and fought it.”

The measure didn’t pass last year, but now that Republicans have control of the legislative and executive branches, some type of charter schools bill will likely be approved when the legislature reconvenes next month.

So, What are Charter Schools?

First of all, any charter school story has to have a disclaimer: Charter schools are public schools. They’re publicly funded but managed by outside groups like nonprofits or sometimes public universities.

“We offer a choice within public education,” said Texas Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Christine Isett. Texas has had charters since 1995. “For whatever reason that a parent may choose a charter school, if it’s the best education that fits the needs of their child, then we think the parent and student should have that option.

But the big difference for charters is they usually don’t have to meet the same requirements placed on traditional public schools when it comes to class sizes, budgets, school curricula and teacher regulations.

In exchange for that flexibility, charters are supposed to be held to strict standards, with some states automatically closing the schools if they don’t meet requirements.

All of this is intended to give parents more options when deciding where to send their children to school and hopefully give students a better education.

But while charter school proponents see more choices, opponents say they suck up funding from already struggling public schools. That’s what Nashville School Board member Will Pinkston said he’s seen happen. Tennessee has had charter schools since 2002 and expanded the system in 2011.

“We still have debt service on the building, we have to maintain yellow buses, we still have maintenance, utilities, staffing. It amounts to essentially a cut to traditional public schools at a time when they’re already considered to be underfunded,” Pinkston said.

Vanderbilt University education professor Marisa Cannata said individual public schools stand to lose money if part of their student population switches to charters.

“Ultimately when you have a financial model where the money follows the students, you are going to see some financial impact on the districts that are losing students,” Cannata said.

But besides the concerns about resource allocation, the million-dollar question is: Do charter schools work?

Cannata said it varies, but overall, yes.

“There’s kind of mounting evidence that overall they have a maybe a small but positive effect on student learning — particularly for African-American students and particularly for students in poverty,” she said.

A Stanford University study from 2015 showed that in urban areas, charters produce slightly better results than traditional public schools.

But critics argue the study doesn’t account for charters “cherrypicking” high-performing students — effectively inflating their own results compared with traditional public schools.

Unanswered Questions for Kentucky

Even if Kentucky lawmakers decide to give charter schools the green light, there are still lots of unanswered questions.

Like funding: Public schools are financed through a mix of state funding and local property tax revenues. Kentucky lawmakers will have to figure out exactly how much of that money charters will receive.

(In Texas, which has had charters since 1995, the schools receive about $1,400 less per student than traditional public schools. They also don’t receive facilities funding, meaning charters are located anywhere from shuttered public schools to closed-down retail outlets.)

There’s also the question of how many charters will be allowed, and who will authorize them. Pinkston, who used to serve on a charter school board too, said Tennessee has authorized too many of the organizations in Nashville.

“My advice to Kentuckians would be: Don’t let charter schools get their nose in the tent,” Pinkston said. “Because once that happens, there will be an effort to dramatically expand it and go in the direction that Tennessee has gone, which has been ill-advised and very perilous.”

Nonetheless, charters can be very popular.

Isett of the Texas Charter Schools Association said there are 140,000 students on waiting lists to attend the schools in her state.

“There’s simply not enough seats in the classroom to accommodate the demand, and that’s why our waiting lists are so large,” she said.

Late last year, the Kentucky Board of Education recommended charter schools be run by nonprofit groups that aren’t governed by religious organizations. The agency also said local school boards should be the primary authorizers of charters schools and that the state board should have final say.

Lawmakers will be considering several options when the legislative session resumes the second week of February.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.