Education Politics

Last week’s upheaval at the Kentucky Board of Education and a possible state takeover of Louisville’s school system have widened the path for charter schools to open in Kentucky.

Though state lawmakers passed a charter schools bill in 2017, the legislation that would have funded charters expires at the end of June and lawmakers failed to pass a new arrangement during the legislative session that ended earlier this month.

But Joel Adams, executive director of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, argued that legally, charter schools can already open.

“Essentially by enabling the schools, they’re now part of the public school system and they have to be funded equitably,” Adams said. “The problem is, what does that really mean and how does somebody write an application without knowing what those numbers look like?”

No charter schools have opened in Kentucky yet because of funding uncertainty, though the legislature signed off on final charter regulations earlier this year.

Gov. Matt Bevin appointed seven new members to the Kentucky Board of Education last week, including his former Republican primary opponent Hal Heiner, a longtime charter schools advocate and critic of Louisville’s public schools.

Bevin appointees now have full control of the 12-member board of education, which voted to select charter schools advocate Milton Seymour to chair the panel.

University of Kentucky professor and charter schools advocate Wayne Lewis is serving as interim education commissioner after former commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigned under pressure following the shakeup.

Lewis has said he will release a 14-month audit of Jefferson County Public Schools in the coming days, determining whether the state will intervene in the district’s management.

If the Kentucky Board of Education authorizes a state takeover, Lewis would control management of the district instead of the local school board and superintendent.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said he’s concerned new education leadership will try to create a charter school in Louisville if the state intervenes.

“His appointee will have all the authority of the school board and the superintendent put together. So they can come into a school and convert it to a charter school even without the parents using the charter conversion process, and then attempt to fund it with our own district funding,” McKim said.

“It’s questionable whether in the end that would legally pass muster, but we’re concerned that attempt will be made.”

Charter schools are publicly funded, but are directly managed by independent organizations instead of local school districts. They are allowed to have different curricula than traditional public schools and are also exempted from state regulations except for safety, civil rights, and disability protections.

Supporters say the charter model allows schools to innovate and provide a better education to students, but supporters say it saps funding from traditional public schools.

Jefferson County Public Schools has long struggled to keep up with state and national performance averages, leading some advocates to call for more public school funding and social services, while others have looked towards charter schools and a shakeup of the district’s management.

Andrew McNeil, director of Americans for Prosperity of Kentucky, voiced support for creating charter schools in Louisville through a state takeover.

“The Jefferson county school board elected by teachers unions is an impediment to making progress on closing the achievement gap. If a state takeover to the school system is what is required to give children a chance to succeed, then it’s something that AFP Kentucky can support,” McNeil said.

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