Senate Education Committee passes charter schools/neighborhood schools bill, 8-5

01/06/2011 04:23 PM

FRANKFORT — After extensive debate, the Senate’s education panel approved a bill Thursday that combined two controversial education issues: allowing voluntary charter schools and allowing the option having districts that enroll children in schools closest to their homes.

All eight Republicans on the committee voted for the bill. And all five Democrats objected, in part because they said they didn’t know how much the would cost school districts. The Democrats also complained that they didn’t feel they received adequate answers to their questions during the more than two-hour-long committee meeting that delayed the start of the Senate.

One provision of the bill would allow school districts to create charter schools in their district if they chose to. Charter schools are set up by outside organizations usually for specific focuses according to their charter, and they don’t have to comply with all state education regulations.

The other provision would give school districts the chance to approve guidelines for parents to send their children to the schools closest to their homes. That’s different from an earlier draft of the plan that would require children to attend the schools closest to their home.

“This is about choice,” said Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. He repeated when Democrats criticized the bill.

Instead, Williams, a co-sponsor with Sen. Dan Seum, Republican from Louisville, said the bill would have no effects on a school district that did not create what he called “attendance districts.” Those are areas within the school district in which parents have the first option to send their children to the school closest to them.

But three members of the Jefferson County Board of Education’s school board — Debbie Wesslund, Linda Duncan and Carol Haddad — said the bill would cost the district millions of dollars to build new schools and create new transportation plans. It also would subject them to lawsuits, they said.

“This neighborhood schools bill will not let every parent send their child to their nearest school, so what’s the point?” Wesslund said.

Duncan said Jefferson County’s system would have to create five new elementary schools, mostly in the eastern portion of Louisville, and one high school. That would cost at least $200 million, she said. It would also require the district to create two transportation plans, costing the district $22 million to execute, Duncan said.

Williams responded that could be avoided by creating “compact” attendance zones.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Shaughnessy said enacting the bill would put 19 elementary schools over capacity, while under-utilizing 31 elementary schools. It would also put 9 middle schools over capacity, while leaving 13 middle schools under-used. And it would put three high schools over capacity, creating chaos from the school district, Shaughnessy said.

The legislation made for a rather lively committee meeting.

Shaughnessy, a former member of the education committee who was removed for the 2011 session, sat in the corner of the committee room, scoffing or remarking when he disagreed with a point.

And at one point, Haddad and Williams sat next to each other debating the bill after senators on the committee asked for clarifications. Sometimes that debate continued while other senators spoke.

“You say you don’t like Washington telling you what to do,” Haddad said. “ Well we don’t want you telling us how to run how our schools.”

But Williams remained firm in his support, saying that the General Assembly had the right to get involved in education issues because one of its first purposes included “common schools,” Williams said.

In floor speeches, Shaughnessy and Sen. Gerald Neal, Democrat from Louisville urged the Senate to not pass the bill, or in Neal’s case, to allow the bill to wait until the General Assembly reconvenes on Feb .1 before bringing it for a floor vote.

“Let it be the first thing on the agenda on Feb. 1,” Neal said.

The bill is expected to be voted on Friday on the Senate floor.

-Reporting by Kenny Colston.


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