FRANKFORT (AP) — A bill aimed at introducing charter schools in Kentucky on a test basis was advanced by a Senate committee on Thursday, but even its main sponsor acknowledged its long odds of becoming law this year.
The more than hour-long debate featured biting words pitting state Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner and Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler.
The bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee would allow public charter schools to open during a five-year pilot project limited only to Jefferson and Fayette counties — the state’s most populous counties.
The measure next goes to the full Senate, where Republicans in charge of the chamber have supported charter school proposals in the past. But the bill’s lead sponsor, Education Committee Chairman Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, acknowledged the measure is unlikely to pass the Democratic-led House.
Wilson’s pessimism was reinforced a short time later by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who told reporters he’s skeptical about the effectiveness of charter schools or the need to give them a foothold in Kentucky.
“There have been a few successes, there have been a whole lot of failures,” he said of charter schools elsewhere. “Many people argue that what amounts to a charter school … can be pretty much done under current law” in Kentucky.
Heiner said charter schools are needed in Kentucky to close student achievement gaps that are widening, especially among minority students in chronically low-performing, inner-city schools.
The challenge of ensuring a quality education for every minority student in order to close that achievement gap is the “the civil rights issue of our time,” he said.
Heiner, who made his support for charter schools a key part of his unsuccessful run for governor last year, took a direct swipe at the KEA for its opposition to the measure.
“When will we put children before adults?” he said. “When will we stop drinking the KEA’s stagnant water, whose very mission statement puts adults before children.”
Winkler told the committee that charter schools would divert funding from existing schools.
“Why in the world do lawmakers spend so much time and energy creating language that has no hope of increasing student achievement?” she said.
Winkler said public schools already have the flexibility for innovations in teaching, scheduling and other aspects of education that are envisioned for charter schools by its advocates.
Instead of embracing the charter-schools options, she said, lawmakers should focus on shoring up struggling schools by increasing per-pupil funding and allowing more flexibility for schools.
The legislation would allow a maximum of two charter schools to open each year of the pilot program in both Jefferson and Fayette counties. A charter school commission could approve charter applications and would provide oversight. The commission’s members would be appointed by the governor.
Low-income students would have priority status for acceptance to charter schools.
In voting for the bill, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, said students at low-performing schools deserve another option.
“How can we possibly lose in trying something different?” he said. “These schools are failing, year after year after year. Don’t we owe it to them to try something different?”
Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas of Lexington, who voted against the bill, countered that “history in America has shown us that dual school systems just do not work.”