Senate sends pilot charter school program to House, where Democrats are already looking at alternatives

02/06/2015 02:08 PM

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Senate approved a bill creating pilot charter school programs on a largely partisan vote Friday, but House Democrats are already working on an alternative method to bridge the student achievement gap this session.

Senate Bill 8, sponsored by GOP Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green, passed 23-12, with Sen. C.B. Embry, R-Morgantown, breaking rank and voting against the legislation.

The bill, which cleared the Senate Education Committee Thursday, would allow Fayette and Jefferson counties to establish up to five charter schools, with no more than two schools launching per year, on a five-year trial basis. The privately operated schools would receive public funding but would be governed by local school boards and a newly created Public Charter School Commission, and students who are on free or reduced lunch, enrolled in a focus or failing school, or live within five miles of a charter school would be eligible for the tuition-free education.

Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, said she was casting her “yes” vote as the grandmother of a student in Fayette County and the mother-in-law of a teacher in the district.

“As the senator from Warren (Wilson) has pointed out many times, this is just another tool in the toolbox,” she said. “It is another item on the menu to see and to have a pilot to experiment to see if we can not do for our failing children.”

Democrats have bristled at the topic of charter schools in recent legislative sessions.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones said similar programs in other states offer mixed results, with some charter schools outperforming public schools and vice versa. The answer, he said, is not in directing funds away from public schools and toward charter schools, but rather in developing another way to improve struggling school districts.

Jones, D-Pikeville, called the creation of charter schools at the expense of public schools “irresponsible.”

“In this state more than 90 percent of the kids go to public schools,” he said. “Most of us in this chamber have kids in public schools, and to siphon those funds away from our existing school systems would be financial irresponsible.

“… Without a clear source of funding that would not deprive our public schools of much-needed money and without a clear system to oversee these charter schools and ensure accountability and transparency, I cannot support this legislation.”

SB 8 will likely receive the same tepid response in the House as similar charter school bills have in recent sessions.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the bill “will be received and it likely won’t go move very far.”

Still, representatives are working on a compromise package to target underperforming school districts, he said.

Rep. Derrick Graham, chairman of the House Education Committee, “is working on what is an alternative approach to allow districts some flexibility,” Stumbo said. “We believe they already have that flexibility, but to make it clear that they have that flexibility to do alternative-type schools if they choose to and leave it at the district level.”

Graham, D-Frankfort, told Pure Politics he’s working with groups like the Kentucky Department of Education, teachers and school administrators to come up with a way to improve student performance.

Some districts have already taken a lead in addressing downward trends, he said, noting schools have shown marked improvement in pre-kindergarten test scores after directing their resources on early childhood education.

“That’s the key, I believe,” Graham said. “If we focus on early childhood development and early childhood education, I think we can eliminate some of the problems we are seeing when kids get beyond the third grade.

“Many kids are entering their first year of school two and three years behind where they need to be. … Our focus is also on trying to see and to give incentives and ways in which districts can address the achievement gaps and close the gap.”

Graham has had some discussions with senators on the topic, and while there is “a level of disagreement,” he said he hopes the two sides reach a resolution on bringing struggling students up to speed in Kentucky’s classrooms.

Video from the Senate by Pure Politics reporter Don Weber.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.