After hours of floor debate, House passes public charter schools bill on 56-39 vote

03/03/2017 01:16 PM

UPDATED FRANKFORT — The House of Representatives passed a public charter schools bill on a 56-39 vote Friday following a lengthy and at times impassioned floor debate that lasted three and a half hours in all.

House Bill 520, sponsored by Rep. John “Bam” Carney, would authorize charter schools throughout the state. It was amended in the House Education Committee hours before hitting the floor to prohibit completely “virtual” charter schools and allow the mayors of Louisville and Lexington to authorize charter school contracts, along with local school districts.

Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting against HB 520. The legislation would take effect in the next school year if signed into law.

Under HB 520, charter schools would be required to meet state requirements on attendance, student performance standards, high school course offerings, open records and meetings, and more, but they would be exempt from state laws and regulations related to schools, except for those on health, safety, disabilities and civil rights.

The charter schools would be under five-year contracts and receive state and federal funding through school districts on a per-pupil basis depending on the number of children enrolled from the district’s boundaries, minus transportation and construction dollars and a 3 percent authorizer fee.

Supporters say that charters would provide a opportunity for low-achieving students to succeed while opponents fear that the schools would deprive public schools of tax dollars.

Carney, R-Campbellsville, said public charter schools would provide “support” for traditional public schools by helping students who lag their peers in learning.

He said he worked with stakeholders like the Kentucky School Boards Association to iron out their concerns. The Kentucky Education Association and Jefferson County Teachers Association testified against HB 520 in the House Education Committee earlier Friday.

“Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have had public charter school laws on the books for 25 years,” Carney said on the House floor.

“Since Kentucky is late to the game, we have incorporated the best in class policies in House Bill 520. This is a bill, if implemented well, will open strong performing public charter schools, especially at districts where our students need public charter options the most.”

Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said public charter schools would siphon money away from public schools, urging them to consider statistical improvements since the 1990 Education Reform Act.

The former House speaker got teary-eyed when talking about his son, a teacher who buys snacks for students who can’t afford them.

“I’m going to not be like Yogi Berra,” Richards said, referencing the venerable New York Yankees legends. “He said he could predict anything but the future. I’m going to say that I can predict that if we pass this bill within a few years we will come back and either alter completely or do away with it.”

Other Democrats echoed Richards’ sentiments. Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, called HB 520 “a direct attack on public education” and Rep. Will Coursey, D-Benton, said the bill would “suck the life’s blood out of our public schools.”

But Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, said Kentucky’s education numbers showed a need for change with just 56.5 percent and 42.3 percent of the state’s recent high school graduates at grade level in reading and math, respectively.

“It’s about proficiency,” he said. “What difference does it make if you have a high school diploma if you can’t read and do math at grade level?”

Gov. Matt Bevin, among those testifying in favor of the bill in the education committee Friday morning, begged members of the panel “to give every child in this state a fair opportunity.”

He chalked up opposition to HB 520, in part, to teachers’ unions hoping to retain power and said concerns that public schools would be threatened if HB 520 became law “a scare tactic.”

“It’s not about the students to any of those that are opposing this bill, and at the end of the day, this is about educating the young people in Kentucky, and we are about due to start putting the young people of Kentucky first,” Bevin said.

“This is not a threat to anything except failure,” he added. “This is a threat to those that have failed to deliver in certain school districts and in certain schools in particular.”

Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Educators’ Association, became emotional in her testimony before the panel, saying that none of the 43 other states that offer charter schools have eliminated their achievement gaps.

“Just think, what would our struggling schools in Kentucky be like if they were given full-day kindergarten, universal preschool education?” she said.

“What if our state was the one state in the nation that said enough is enough? Let’s devise a plan that would provide our neediest public schools with more deregulation, intensive wraparound services for students, increase state per-pupil funding and the support for our community and business leaders to invest time and energy in our state’s public schools.”

HB 520 now heads to the Senate.


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