Education Kentucky Politics

A bill that would fund charter schools for the first time in Kentucky got the greenlight Monday afternoon from the Senate Education Committee.

The controversial measure squeaked through the House last week, with the exact number of votes it needed to pass. The Senate committee sent the measure to the floor on an 8-3 vote.

The bill would require Kentucky school districts to fund approved charter schools within their borders. Charter schools are publicly funded but are run by private boards rather than local school districts. Private boards can either run the schools themselves, or hire for-profit or nonprofit organizations to manage daily operations.

The bill also mandates the creation of charter schools in Northern Kentucky and Jefferson County in the next two years, as part of a “pilot program.”

That proposal was welcomed by west Louisville pastor Jerry Stephenson. Stephenson, a long-time charter school advocate, expressed frustration with opponents of charter schools, who often describe charters as akin to private schools.

We’re not asking you to create a private school for these children, but to create the mechanism for them to get the best education that they can,” Stephenson told the committee, pointing to low test scores among students in the predominantly Black and low-income West End of Louisville.

Charter schools have been legal in Kentucky since 2017, but lawmakers haven’t created a permanent way to fund them. The proposal would allow charter schools to get off the ground.

Charter schools are legal in most other states, but they’re controversial. They have far fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Advocates say that makes them more agile and able to innovate. Opponents say that means they lack important oversight, are able to cherry-pick students and siphon funds away from cash-strapped school districts.

Earlier this month, Gov. Andy Beshear called charter schools unconstitutional and vowed to veto charter school funding legislation..

School districts, education leaders concerned

Concerns, over charters draining funds and students, have historically kept many rural Republicans from supporting charter school legislation. In a nod to those concerns, bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Chad McCoy of Bardstown, said his measure gives small districts of fewer than 7,500 students “super veto” power over charter school applications. No district of that size would be compelled to authorize a charter school.

“The reason that’s in there is the financial implications that may happen. You know, with a smaller school district, a hundred kids might be a big deal,” McCoy told the committee.

Those provisions did not assuage Lawrence County Schools Superintendent Robbie Fletcher.

“If you take one dime from the budget and put it into a public charter school, it’s gonna take away from public education, it’s going to take away from our public schools,” Fletcher told the committee.

Leaders of the state’s teachers union also spoke against the measure, citing the lack of regulation.

“Why are we not listening to the experts? This room is filled with experts: teachers, parents, administrators and superintendents,” Fayette County Education Association president Jessica Hiler said, noting the packed committee room. “Work with us, and not against us by handing over critical resources to an unproven system.”

Jefferson County Teachers Association president Brent McKim read off a list of regulations charter schools are exempt from, including regulations around student discipline, principal qualifications and anti-nepotism laws.

“If a regular [public] school came … and asked you to waive all of those things that I just identified, I have to believe that most of you would vote against doing that,” McKim said. 

“It’s not ready for primetime funding. Those sorts of things need to be addressed,” he said.

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass urged lawmakers not to approve the bill in a statement last week. And Kentucky Board of Education Chair Lu Young spoke out against the measure in committee.

“These funds are better spent on improving public education and better serving all Kentucky kids, rather than a self-selected subset of students,” she said.

Lawmakers explain their votes

All but two Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the measure. Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, was absent. And Republican Sen. Steven Meredith, of Leitchfield voted against the measure, but did not explain his reasoning, except to say they were not the concerns voiced by opponents in committee.

“The reason we’re having a discussion today is because of the failure of the education system in the West End—predominantly the minority students in Jefferson County,” Meredith said, a frequent critic of JCPS.

Democrats Denise Harper Angel, of Louisville, and Reggie Thomas, of Lexington, voted against the measure. 

Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal, of Louisville’s West End, sat the vote out, saying he wanted to review the testimony. But he appeared to take issue with comments from Meredith.

“I resent people putting on the backs of Black children deficiencies that they perceive as useful to their argument to undermine a public system that has served the public,” Neal said. 

“There’s nothing new under the sun that investment will not cure: investment and commitment,” he said, echoing many opponents’ concerns that school districts need more funding, and charter schools will drain their resources.

“So all the rest of this is bull, and I’m sick and tired of it!”

The measure heads to the Senate floor, where its future is unclear. 

In a statement, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio blasted the committee’s decision.

“It is unfortunate some legislators feel the need to attack Jefferson County Public Schools and some of the hardest working educators in Kentucky. This is another example of unconstitutional legislation taking aim at Jefferson County Public Schools,” Pollio’s statement reads. “The only thing the charter school funding bill will do is take public tax money away from JCPS schools and give it to out-of-state corporations.”

Lawmakers have two days to pass the bill—if they want the opportunity to override a certain veto from Gov. Andy Beshear.

 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.