Lack of charter schools killed Kentucky's Race to the Top chances, officials say

08/24/2010 01:31 PM

Kentucky struck out again in its quest for a huge pot of federal education money, and state officials are blaming the missed opportunity on leaders’ failure to allow charter schools.

“We did improve. Our score went up from last time. But the place we never got points was charter schools,” said Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner. “If we have had charter schools, we would have gotten the money.”

Twice, the state has been named among the finalists for a share in the $3.4 billion Race to the Top grant money through President Barack Obama’s administration. If chosen, Kentucky could have received $175 million.

But Tuesday, eight states were named winners of the second round of the competition joining Tennessee and Delaware who were the first two selected earlier this summer. Despite being a finalist each time, Kentucky’s bid was most likely hurt both times by a lack of options for charter schools, legislators on both side of the aisle told cn|2 Politics.

“It seems the Obama administration has decided they weren’t going to give out money to states without charter schools,” Rep. Carl Rollins, a Democrat from Midway and the chairman of the House education committee. “It probably would have taken charter schools in order to get the money.”

Rollins, who is against allowing charter schools, said that the state had a strong application otherwise, including improving on other areas that hurt Kentucky in the first round of funding. For instance, the state changed the way teachers are evaluated.

But the news that Kentucky was left on the sidelines once again came as a surprise to Rollins.

“I thought we would get it,” he said.

State Sen. Ken Winters, a Republican and chair of the Senate education committee called the news “very disappointing,” but agreed that an application without charter school options could be the torpedo that sunk Kentucky’s chances.

“Having that available would have helped,” Winters said.

Gov. Steve Beshear released a statement that strained to find a silver lining. He said that the fact that Kentucky was a finalist twice in the program is a testament to gains in educational reform.

“While we are disappointed that Kentucky did not win an award in the second round of Race to the Top funding, we are confident that the steps we are taking in education will significantly improve the education experience for Kentucky’s students,” Beshear statement said.

Other leaders had even less to say. House Speaker Greg Stumbo released an eight-word statement lamenting the fact that Kentucky lost out on the federal money.

“It’s a shame that we lost an opportunity,” Stumbo said.

The debate over charter schools heated up during the past two legislative sessions, with bills paving the way for such schools were introduced in both the regular session and the May special session.

When Rep. Harry Moberly, a Democrat from Richmond who is retiring this year, introduced the bill during the special session. House leaders ignored it, which enraged members of both parties on the House floor.

“We have refused to consider charter school bills in the general session and the special session,” Rep. Brad Montell, a Republican from Shelbyville, said at the time. “The mayor of Louisville (Jerry Abramson) has said ‘We need to have that discussion.’ Why are we not debating the merits of charter schools in Kentucky?”

And Moberly called out Beshear for not supporting the issue of charter schools.

“Governor, where are you? Why are you not communicating with our leadership?” Moberly said. “The governor is at fault (for not having charter schools). Why was it not on the call?

Beshear’s response to the issue at the time was swift, saying that without agreement from both chambers, the matter wouldn’t be addressed during the special session.

“If the House and the Senate come together and agree today on a measure for charter schools I’ll amend,” Beshear said. “But I don’t think that agreement is there and we want to keep this session short.”

Despite charter schools being left out, legislators tried to improve Kentucky’s odds at every chance, including giving Holliday more power to allow dual-credit and Advanced Placement courses in schools.

The legislature also passed bills aimed at affecting low-performing schools with options including: replacing principals, site-based decision making councils and teachers or completely shutting down a school and sending the students to better performing schools.

“We have done some very innovative things here in Kentucky,” Winters said. “… I’m very disappointed. There’s a seemingly lack of recognition of thing we’ve done for education.”

The way teachers are evaluated hurt Kentucky in the first round of the competition. So that section of Kentucky’s proposal was modified in this recent round, Winters said.

But without legislation to address the issue, it could have been another item that hampered Kentucky’s application, Rollins said.

Still, the ten states that qualified for Race for the Top money have charter schools and charter school legislation. Kentucky is one of 10 states in the U.S. without charter schools or pending legislation to allow them.

It’s unclear what this development means for the future of push for charter schools, which are usually formed with a specific goal defined in their charter and receive some public money but aren’t governed by all school system standards.

Winters, who sponsored charter school legislation in the state Senate, said he would continue to do anything to “help the young people of Kentucky” and said introducing charter school legislation wasn’t just to help Kentucky’s Race to the Top chances.

“I would not have sponsored the bill if I didn’t think it would make a difference in the lives of Kentucky children,” Winters said.

But Holliday said the state Department of Education is effectively done with the issue.

“The only reason the department pushed for charter schools was for this federal funding,” he said. “We’re not going to push for charter schools. The General Assembly would have to decide.”

The issue should come up in next year’s governor’s race as well. Republican Phil Moffett, the only Republican challenger to Beshear so far, has made charter schools and school choice a large part of his platform.

“We stayed in the middle of the road too long, neither doing enough to win the grant money nor having the fortitude to tell the federal government where to go with their mandates,” Moffett said in a statement Tuesday. “Now Kentucky lacks both the money to fund Senate Bill 1 and the commonsense improvements our children need.”

Plus, there are many legislators who still support charter schools as a way of improving education throughout the state.

Regardless, Rollins said the state isn’t abandoning education reform just because the Race to the Top program is finished.

“We will continue to improve Kentucky schools, with or without Race to the Top money,” Rollins said.

- Kenny Colston


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