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Charter school funding bill squeaks through legislative committee

J. Tyler Franklin

Charter schools are a step closer to reality in Kentucky, after a GOP-controlled state House committee approved a bill to fund them statewide and require them in Louisville and Northern Kentucky. 

The House Education Committee voted 11-9 to pass the measure, after swapping out a committee member for the bill’s sponsor in the days before the vote.

Charter schools are schools run by private groups, but are funded with taxpayer dollars. They’ve been legal in Kentucky since 2017, but they never took off because lawmakers didn’t set up a permanent way to fund them. House Bill 9 would create the funding mechanism needed for charters to get off the ground.

Under the measure, public school districts would be required to fund charter schools within their borders. 

The legislation also creates parameters for who can become charter school “authorizers.” These are bodies that review applications from would-be charter school groups, and determine whether to grant them a charter, and for how long. The measure limits authorizers to school boards, the mayors of Louisville and Lexington and the governing board of Northern Kentucky University. That’s a departure from an earlier version of the bill, which would have created a slew of authorizing bodies. 

Charters mandated for Louisville and Northern Kentucky

In another departure from the original, the latest version of HB 9 not only creates a path to fund charters—in Louisville and Northern Kentucky, it mandates their creation.

The measure requires the Jefferson County Board of Education to approve at least one charter school by July 2023. The charter would have to be granted for at least a five-year term.

In Northern Kentucky, the measure requires a charter school to be authorized by either the Northern Kentucky University board of regents or a “collective” of local school boards by July 2024.

Bill sponsor, Republican Chad McCoy of Bardstown, called the proposed mandate a “pilot program,” for the west Louisville and Northern Kentucky regions. He referred to these majority Black or Latino, majority low-income areas as “education deserts.”

“We are failing the minority kids in the West End of Louisville, when it comes to education—period,” McCoy said.

Backers of charters often say they create an alternative for students who can’t afford private school, but aren’t thriving in traditional public schools. Research on charters’ impact is mixed, with some studies showing improvements in test scores, and others showing little to no impact.

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Democrat and teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools, bristled at the characterization of her district.

“To flat out say that we are failing our minority kids in west Louisville without sitting down and collaborating with JCPS with [JCPS Superintendent Marty] Pollio is just so frustrating to me as a JCPS teacher,” Bojanowski said.

Musical chairs in committee

Another Louisville Democrat, Rep. Lisa Willner, blasted her Republican colleagues for swapping out committee members ahead of the vote. 

The measure was originally slated to be heard last week in the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, but Willner says sponsors pulled it from the agenda because they knew it wouldn’t have the votes to pass. Charter schools are controversial among Democrats, and some rural Republicans who worry they will skim funding and students from cash-strapped schools.

Willner said the bill was given to the House Education Committee, but only after swapping out one committee member, Morehead Republican Rep. Richard White, for McCoy—the bill’s sponsor.

“This is not good democratic process. This is not good governance. This is not good process,” Willner said. “This is not transparency. And I hope that my statement just now made transparent some of the games that have been played on this bill.”

The measure still needs to pass the full House and get through the senate to pass. Its future is unclear in both chambers, and it faces a certain veto by Gov. Andy Beshear, who recently called charter schools “unconstitutional.”

Copyright 2022 89.3 WFPL News Louisville. To see more, visit 89.3 WFPL News Louisville.

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