When It Comes To Charter Schools, Kentucky Is Doing It Wrong

Who would attempt to create a new school knowing that they have no guarantee of funding?
02/22/2017 09:13 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2017
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The Bluegrass State is ignoring decades of experience.

The political winds in November were seen as a good sign for charter schools. While charter schools are embraced by people of every political persuasion, citizens were hopeful that a united government in Kentucky might finally achieve an education reform milestone.

The first charter school law in America was enacted in 1991 in Minnesota. A quarter of a century later, there are nearly three million students attending more than 7,000 charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way for a state to join the charter school movement. And despite the prevailing winds, Kentucky appears to be about to do it the wrong way.

The wrong way is to ignore decades of experience among states that already have charter schools. Take Indiana, where charter schools have transformed children’s lives and improved all public schools. Because of that, my organization sponsored a trip for some 20 Kentucky policymakers to Indiana, one of the best five states for charter school laws. What they saw on their trip convinced them – at least at the time – to back a strong bill.

Students in Indiana’s charter schools make dramatically higher learning gains than comparable students in other public schools? Why? Because the state allows multiple authorizers, most importantly universities, to sponsor and manage charter schools. Combined with freedom from bureaucracy, and the ability of parents to make choices that help them find the education that best suits their students’ needs, the Hoosier state is considered a model for the nation.

Vice President Mike Pence was an early supporter of this law long before he was the state’s governor. Similar laws in Minnesota and New York have drawn precisely the same kind of political support, from the other party. More than 85 percent of the nation’s charter schools come from such states with multiple authorizers; those states account for increased student achievement, graduation rates, and improved economic climates.

But that’s not the proposal before Kentucky today. Policymakers seem to have been misled down the wrong path by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which released a memo from a Colorado attorney arguing that a strong law that would produce great results for kids would violate Kentucky’s constitution. To get to the bottom of that assertion, we asked one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers to do an independent analysis. Former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who has argued more than 80 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, found that the Kentucky constitution “clearly grants the General Assembly broad authority to decide what reforms will make the common school system most efficient ... to alter them or even do away with them entirely.”

That carefully reasoned and researched opinion is not reflected in a bill filed last Friday by State Rep. John Carney, a veteran educator. It gives the authority to approve charters to the same school districts that currently are in charge, and even worse, does not guarantee them funding. Who would attempt to create a new school knowing that they have no guarantee of funding? We actually know the answer. Carney’s bill appears modeled after the laws of Iowa, Virginia, and Kansas, all F-rated laws that have resulted in no truly independent charter schools. On the other hand, a bill filed earlier this year by Rep. Phil Moffett, modeled after the Indiana law, would ensure that Kentuckians have the tools to improve education for students from every community and learners at all levels.

The key ingredient is university authorizers, which are publicly accountable and experienced in managing complex organizations. Just as university teaching hospitals have a significant positive impact on the quality of medical care, university-sponsored charter schools are bringing innovation and real-life experimentation to schools everywhere.

The other benefit of a well-designed charter school law is private investment. Companies like BB&T are investing millions in charter schools and foundations are funding their staffing, research and development. These groups will not come to Kentucky without an independent charter sector that operates outside of traditional districts.

A quarter century of experience and the success of tens of thousands of charter school graduates point the way. There is no reason not to do this the right way, and enact a strong law in the Bluegrass state.

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