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General Assembly passes charter school bill

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - Updated: 10:51 AM
Lexington Herald Leader
Kentucky is on the verge of joining 43 other states that have charter schools.

The state Senate voted 23 to 15 late Wednesday afternoon to allow charter schools and sent the measure to the House, which gave House Bill 520 final approval on a 53-43 vote and sent it to Gov. Matt Bevin to sign into law or veto.

Bevin spoke on behalf of the bill Wednesday morning before the Senate Education Committee approved it and sent it to the full Senate for its afternoon vote.

Several Democrats in the Senate argued during a lengthy debate that the bill needed more work.

“It’s not ready for prime time,” said Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, who unsuccessfully tried to amend HB 520, sponsored by House Education Chairman John Carney, R-Campbellsville.

Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, questioned the constitutionality of the bill while Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said the legislation would give for-profit companies access to $5 billion in public K-12 school funding.

Proponents of the bill argued that charter schools will address the achievement gap for many vulnerable children in Kentucky and offer parents another choice.

Kentucky has schools that have failed for generations, Bevin told the committee earlier in the day. He said charter schools are not a silver bullet, but they also don’t mean the end of public education as charter opponents maintain. He said it gives a community a chance to offer a better choice.

“This is the right thing to do,” Bevin said. He noted that the Senate had approved charter school bills in the past.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that its even needing a debate at this point. This idea that some would say, ‘We’re not ready, we haven’t had time. We haven’t studied it.’ Really? Has there been anything more ... well-discussed in the last weeks, months and frankly, years in Kentucky ... that more directly affects our young people in Kentucky?. I would say no.”

The Senate Education Committee vote was 9-3, with Sens. Neal, Thomas, and Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, voting no.

The Senate approval came late in the 2017 General Assembly while lawmakers from both chambers have spent the last few days negotiating the bill’s details.

In public charter schools, an organizer would enter into a performance-based contract, or charter, with an oversight board or entity that spells out the school’s governance, funding, accountability and flexibility. A public charter school would be part of the state’s system of public education.

But public charter schools would be exempt from state school laws and regulations, except those affecting health, safety, civil, and disability rights. The public charter schools would have to be non-sectarian.

Local school boards and the mayors of Louisville and Lexington could approve and oversee an unlimited number of charter schools under the bill beginning in 2017-18.

Applicants who are turned down could appeal to the Kentucky Department of Education. A collaboration of local districts could set up a regional charter school. Carney said that only students in a local school district could attend a charter school in that district.

A separate appropriations bill, which the Senate and House approved Wednesday evening hours after it was unveiled in the Senate budget committee, sketched out the funding model for charter schools.

Under House Bill 471, federal and per-pupil state funding would be allocated to charter schools just as it would any other public schools, but locally-raised money, such as property tax revenue, would not. School districts or mayors could keep 3 percent of a charter school’s state funding as an “authorizer fee.”

Charter schools would be eligible for state transportation funds if the local school district refused to provide them with transportation services. But they would not be eligible for the capital outlay funds the state provides school districts for construction projects based on the districts’ student population.

Carney said the charter school bill gives enrollment preferences to children with special needs, at-risk students and students from low-performing schools.

Senators made a number of language revisions to the version the House passed, but no immediately apparent large-scale changes.

One of the changes was that the mayors of Louisville and Lexington would have to make a request to the Kentucky Board of Education if they wanted to approve and oversee charter schools. Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-Greensburg, said the Senate version also ensures that teachers are qualified.

In another Senate change, the legislation says public charter schools don’t have to provide extra curricular activities. But if they do, participants must comply with eligibility requirements of non-charter schools. If a charter school does not offer any interscholastic athletic activity, a student is eligible to participate at the school the student would attend based on the student’s residence.

The Kentucky Education Association, an educator’s group, opposed the legislation.

“Opening a parallel system of public schools that has the potential to take away from our current traditional system of schools is certainly not what’s in the best interest of children,” KEA President Stephanie Winkler said during the committee meeting.
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