(Update) State Senate Approves Charter School Bill, House to Vote on Changes

Mar 15, 2017

Credit J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

Update: The state Senate has approved a bill that would allow charter schools in Kentucky for the first time.

Kentucky is one of seven states that does not allow charter schools. House Bill 520 would let local school districts and the mayors of Louisville and Lexington authorize charter schools within their communities. The state Board of Education could overrule those decisions.

The proposal has already passed the House, but because the Senate changed the bill, the House must vote on it again. Under the House bill, if a student left a public school to attend a charter school, state tax dollars would follow that student, with some exceptions. The state Senate removed that language, raising questions as to how the schools would be funded.

Original Story:

With hopes of passing a charter schools bill out of the legislature by the end of the day, the Senate Education Committee Wednesday approved last-minute changes to a bill that would allow the organizations to open up across the state.

Gov. Matt Bevin showed up to the committee to once again throw his support behind the bill.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s needing a debate at this point,” Bevin said. “This idea that some would say ‘well we’re not ready, we haven’t had time, we haven’t studied it.’ Really?”

Charter schools would be exempted from state regulations that apply to traditional public schools — supporters say this provision would allow charters to innovate and provide better education for students.

Under the new version of the bill, charters would be required to “hire only qualified teachers to provide student instruction”— addressing a concern that charters would be exempted from doing so.

Sen. David Givens, a Republican from Greenville, said the new version of the bill will also prevent charters from “cherry picking” the most-qualified students from traditional public schools.

“When we build into that lottery explicit language that says that lottery must reflect the application, we think we’ve arrived at a place of comfort that there will not be cherry picking,” Givens said.

Givens said the issue will be addressed by language requiring charters to conduct student admission lotteries “in accordance with targeted student population and service community” as identified in their charter applications.

The bill states that teachers, parents, school administrators, community residents, public organizations, nonprofit organizations, “or a combination thereof” can apply for charters.

Local school districts would be in charge of authorizing charter schools, though denials could be appealed to the state board of education. The new version of the bill clarifies that the mayors of Lexington and Louisville — not including unincorporated cities within Louisville’s boundaries — can also authorize charter schools.

Rep. Reginald Thomas, a Democrat from Lexington, asked Givens to include language explicitly preventing for-profit companies from applying to form charters.

Givens denied the request, but said the bill already prevents for-profits from forming charters.

“I think the difference between public and private is largely going to be as we understand the definition of public organization,” Givens said after the hearing. “It is defined as a governmental entity.”

The bill does not explicitly define “public organization.”

The new version of the bill also makes it harder to form conversion charter schools — public schools in which 60 percent of parents vote to turn the institution into a charter school.

Under the changes, schools that are in the bottom 5 percent of performers would be able to move forward with conversions in that manner, but better-performing schools would have to have approval from the local school board after the vote.

After the meeting, Givens said that there will likely be a bill late Wednesday that would address how charter schools are funded.

The state Senate will likely take up the charter schools bill late Wednesday. If the measure passes, the House will have to approve any changes before the legislation heads to Gov. Bevin’s desk.

Earlier:  

After weeks of backroom debates, a charter schools bill will be heard in the Senate Education Committee early Wednesday morning.

Legislative leaders say they want to advance the bill to the governor’s desk before the General Assembly breaks for a 10-day “veto period” that begins Thursday.

In order to reach Bevin, the charter school legislation will have to pass out of the senate committee, the full Senate and then return to the House to approve any changes.

Earlier in the day, Senate President Robert Stivers said negotiations were still taking place.

“There has been discussion with House members and the administration about what it should contain and potential tweaks and remedies to some problems that we’re seeing in what was passed to us,” Stivers said.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a version of the charter schools bill, a top priority of many Republicans and Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration.

After weeks of debate about whether to allow online charter schools, how many entities should authorize the organizations and how to fund them, lawmakers will likely present a new version of the charter schools bill on Wednesday morning.

In the version of the bill that passed out of the House, private organizations and community members can apply to open up a charter school.

Local school districts and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville would be charged with approving or denying the charters, though denials could be appealed to the state board of education.

Charters would be exempted from many state regulations, which supporters say would allow for innovation. Charter critics say the policy would siphon funds away from traditional public schools.

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville, joined a handful of Democratic lawmakers and Jefferson County Public Schools officials in calling for the legislation to be shelved.

“We should have a process between in the interim where we can bring the stakeholders to the table, not stack it against one stakeholder or another,” Neal said. “Let’s get them all to the table. Let’s have adult conversation of how this should be done.”

Lawmakers have been tight-lipped about what parts of the bill are still in question, though whether to allow charters to open up statewide, how many authorizers of the institutions there should be and how funding should be structured have been ongoing topics of debate.

On Tuesday, Stivers said a funding mechanism for charters can be established later.

“That doesn’t concern me at this point in time that the funding mechanism is not attached into the bill which has the structure in it for charter schools,” Stivers said.

Though the General Assembly won’t meet during the veto period, they will reconvene on March 29 and 30 for the final two days of session.

The Senate Education Committee will hear House Bill 520 at 8 a.m.

This story has been updated.