Education Politics

When Kentucky lawmakers return to Frankfort next week, they’re expected to take up charter school legislation.

In the meantime, 89.3 WFPL is taking a look at the issue from various angles. In this installment of the weeklong series, we take a look at another way the issue is often framed: as urban vs. rural.

Republican leaders are confident that some form of charter school enabling legislation will pass this session. But now, the debate has shifted to whether to permit the schools across the state or just in Lexington and Louisville.

A Divided Majority?

Kentucky is one of only seven states in the nation without charter schools, and most people predict that will change this year. But earlier this week at a meeting of Greater Louisville Inc., the Louisville area’s chamber of commerce, House Speaker Jeff Hoover tapped the brakes slightly on a statewide charter school bill.

“I really believe at the end of the session, we will be in the position to do something,” said Hoover. “I’m just not sure what that something will be. Because with regard to charter schools, it’s all about building consensus.”

So far, consensus — or something close to it — has been an easy thing to find in Frankfort this year. Last month, during a week normally reserved for organizing early, the General Assembly quickly passed seven bills into law. Some of them were controversial like anti-abortion legislation and a so-called “right-to-work” policy.

And even though Democrats loudly protested the GOP blitz, it didn’t matter, because Republicans have supermajorities in both legislative chambers and control of the governor’s office.

But when it comes to charter schools, Republicans might be divided on one issue: whether to allow charters in all 120 counties in Kentucky, or just the two biggest — and urban — ones.

Hoover said something will pass, but he’s not sure where his caucus stands.

“Now, is it more than just a pilot project in Jefferson or Fayette,” he said. “Does it provide for 10 or so public charter schools around the rest of the state, or does it open it up? I don’t know.”

One bill, sponsored by Louisville Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal, would create a charter school “pilot project” just in Jefferson and Fayette Counties.

Another would allow charters to open up across the state. That bill is sponsored by Louisville Republican Rep. Phil Moffett.

“The way it works best is when there is a wider field of choice,” Moffett said. “Statewide bills tend to work better than bills that are restricted to urban areas.”

But Moffett said even if charters are allowed statewide, it’s unlikely they would take root in rural areas, at least at first.

“There’s really no more chance of a charter school starting in a very rural district as there is for a five-star restaurant opening in that county,” he said.

Core Problems

Charter schools receive public funding but they’re run by outside organizations like nonprofits. 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.

And in exchange for that flexibility, charters are supposed to be held to strict performance standards by their authorizers.

Matt Wyatt is chairman of the Elizabethtown Independent Board of Education. He’s opposed to any form of charters, saying they don’t address the core problems in the education system.

“Drug abuse, homelessness, these are the reasons we have gaps,” said Wyatt. “Lack of healthcare. These are the reasons we have gaps in our schools. The answer is not charter schools, the answer is universal pre-k in Kentucky.”

The Elizabethtown school board unanimously passed a resolution opposing charter schools in Kentucky.

But Wyatt said it would still be a “win” if the General Assembly passes legislation confining charters to Louisville and Lexington. He said he doesn’t want charters to cherry-pick high performing students from the public schools in his area.

“There is no doubt that the promises that are made to these students, the things that they give away, some of the shiny buildings — they will peel away even good students,” he said.

Gov. Matt Bevin has been a proponent of charter schools. In a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce interview this week, he said charters should be available wherever they can add value, but they’ll likely be more prevalent in urban areas.

“And so our rural communities are going to be less impacted by this and shouldn’t necessarily be concerned about this,” Bevin said. “Because I’m not sure how a charter school necessarily in a rural community that’s already providing a good quality of education to our students is necessarily going to help.”

It’s unclear what the final version of the charter school bill will look like. Wyatt, the Elizabethtown school board chair, predicts the legislature will pass a smaller bill this year, and then expand in the future.

“I think that’s what it’ll probably be,” said Wyatt. “They’ll get in the door, they’ll call it a success and they’ll eventually pass it for all the districts.”

There are 64 Republicans in the state House of Representatives. Democrats would need to get 15 of them to vote against their party in order to block any charter school legislation.

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