Charter schools might not come to Kentucky this year after all.
Last year, Kentucky became the 44th state to make charter schools legal. But the mechanism to pay for them expires June 30. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin did not include a funding formula for charter schools in his proposed two-year spending plan, indicating he preferred lawmakers pass a law so the funding mechanism would not expire every two years. But several leading Republican lawmakers say they don't support that in a tight budget year.
The problem, those GOP lawmakers say, is Bevin's budget proposal slashes funding for public school buses. That has prompted an outcry from local school districts, who say they would have to take money from the classroom to cover the costs of getting students to the school.
"I'm hearing a lot more from how are we going to fix transportation than how are we going to fund charters," said Rep. Steven Rudy, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, the legislative panel responsible for crafting the two-year state spending plan. "Any charter that wants public money, that would certainly delay those."
Charter schools are public schools that are exempt from most state standards that govern every other public school. They are governed not by the local school district but a board of directors operating under the authority of a charter. Charter schools often focus on specific learning needs, and advocates say they are crucial to helping those students who have struggled in traditional public schools. But critics say charters weaken public schools by diverting money from them.
Charter schools are still legal in Kentucky and people can apply to open them. But those applications must include a five-year budget, something Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said would be "nearly impossible to do without knowing how the General Assembly intends education funds to flow to charter schools." Charter schools could raise their own funds, but Pruitt said "as a public school under the law, it would be very rare for a charter applicant to be able to operate without receiving state and/or local funds to do so."
"I must emphasize that the charter law cannot be implemented effectively and with fidelity without addressing the statutory mechanisms needed to fund those schools," Pruitt said.
Complicating the issue is the 2018 elections, where all 100 House members and half of the Senate are on the ballot. At least 39 current and former educators have filed to run for seats in the Republican-dominated state legislature, most of them Democrats and many of them campaigning against charter schools.
In Louisville, whose public school district is one of the largest in the nation, Republicans Sen. Julie Raque Adams and Rep. Jason Nemes sent a joint letter to teachers vowing that "charter school funding is not a priority, or even a consideration, when the state is facing cuts" to traditional public schools. Both are up for re-election this year.
"If we're talking about cutting funding to those public schools, especially transportation funding to Jefferson County, then we don't have the money to be funding other things like charter schools," Nemes said.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, the Republican chairman of the Senate budget-writing committee who is not up for re-election, said he hoped "politicians in Frankfort aren't looking out for their next election."
"And I hope that bureaucrats and educators aren't looking out for what brings the most money to their schools, but rather what serves the children best. In some of these cases, I think charters would," McDaniel said.
But even the Republican lawmaker who wrote the charter school law and shepherded it through the legislature last year says it is not a priority to pay for them over the next two years. State Rep. John "Bam" Carney, who is also chairman of the House Education Committee, is also a former social studies teacher who still works for his local school district.
"We have to fund our traditional public schools at a level that is appropriate and right now that is our first task," Carney said. "It's a very good chance that charter funding mechanisms may have to wait until the future."