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Prichard Committee: Finding common ground on charter schools in Kentucky as bill goes to Senate

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By Brigitte Blom Ramsey
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

Charter school legislation hangs in the balance in the waning days of the 2017 session of Kentucky’s General Assembly.  At the center of the ongoing debate is HB520 – passed Wednesday on the House floor after three hours of intense discussion and yet to be heard in Senate committee. 

We agree with strong assertions on both sides of the conversation:  Charters can be a tool to increase student achievement and begin to close achievement gaps. True.  According to Stanford University’s CREDO study, charter effects vary sharply by student background, with the worst losses for white students and the best gains for black and Hispanic students in poverty. True. There are other strategies we can use to increase student achievement and close gaps, instead of charters. True. With current funding, charters will erode funding for existing public schools and compromise the progress that can be made for all students. True.  If we add charters to our system, additional resources will be necessary to support additional fixed costs. True. Charters can create a dual system, that leaves new cracks for kids to fall through. True. High-performing charters can bring effective expertise into Kentucky and innovation that can spillover to other schools and districts. True.
 

Brigitte Blom Ramsey

We agree with the dialog’s most important assertions: This is a significant change to Kentucky’s public education structure.  If we get this wrong, it could set us back, and worse, our kids will lose hard-won progress. True!  If we get this right, it could help us narrow achievement gaps, and better, we might have kids who are given a new sense of hope that education is their path to a larger life. True!

Our assertion: While charters will ever only affect a handful of Kentucky’s 650,000 students, there are significant opportunity costs and energy spent on this reform measure, that could be spent on other – possibly just as successful reform measures.  We MUST get this right. Our students are depending on us.  I hope this is something to which we can all agree – now, and on whatever path we choose. 

Our commitment: Whatever the years ahead hold for education policy in Kentucky, the Prichard Committee will continue to track our state’s progress, as we have for nearly four decades.  We will continue to study, inform and engage policymakers and citizens alike.  The urgency of this moment is to not let a quarter century of progress be pushed to the wayside – but to mobilize, galvanize, energize – for our next giant leap.  Together, from a place of common ground for every person and group who cares about the future of our children and our state’s prosperity, we must make that leap. 

As the hours pass and we hear the Senate is putting final touches on HB520, I’d like to reassert the Prichard Committee’s research-based findings to support legislation that has the best shot of serving our students well – within the promise of our public school system that must serve each of them well:

•      Authorizers — Researchers repeatedly point to the importance of authorizers who have been highly trained to support key principals and standards such as those outlined in the NACSA Quality Authorizing Guide (2015).  The Prichard Committee supports a moderate approach to charter legislation with authorizing by locally elected school boards and an appeal mechanism to the Kentucky Board of Education as a secondary authorizer in the case of community outcry about persistently low performing schools.

•      Accountability and oversight
— Charter school accountability is a key component of overall quality of the public education system. The Prichard Committee supports monitoring and oversight by the Kentucky Board of Education with default renewal/closure standards that are tied to student achievement and charter contract requirements with clear performance expectations for raising achievement and closing achievement gaps. 

•      Enrollment — Charter schools should not discriminate in the enrollment of students in any fashion. The Prichard Committee asserts that no student or group of students should be prohibited from enrollment on the basis of ability, performance, geography, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, and also that charter schools must provide free and reduced-price meals as well as services for students with learning differences.

•      Funding — Funding for charter schools should not diminish the resources currently available to school districts to educate and increase achievement for all students. Federal funding will likely be available to support public charters in Kentucky and, historically, states have been asked to outline their strategy for using charters to increase student achievement (USDOE Public Charter Program). The Prichard Committee supports the expression of an explicit, bold goal in the legislation that seeks to increase student outcomes, particularly for students who are currently left behind, and corresponding investment of public resources to achieve these bold goals.

Lastly, AND THIS CANNOT BE OVERSTATED – instilling collaboration between public charters and traditional public schools, that engages and inspires community support, will be critical to ensuring all children are served well (Center for Reinventing Public Education (2016). This will happen if local school districts are the primary authorizer of charters – but likely NOT without this approach. Collaboration has been a hallmark of education policy in Kentucky for years and should be leveraged as a position of strength – allowing us to uniquely benefit from some of the most current research on charters. 

As we count the days and wait for negotiation on charters to be resolved this week, we look forward to uniting on common ground — in a place where everyone who cares about student achievement can work together to focus on quality public schools and the resources necessary to support access and opportunity for each and every one of Kentucky’s 650,000 students.

That shared aspiration will help move Kentucky toward the ultimate goal of leading the nation in preparing students to achieve in school and in life. 

Brigitte Blom Ramsey is executive director of the Prichard Committee.

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