Kentucky this year likely will pass legislation that allows for the creation of charter schools, which are public schools paid with taxpayer dollars but run by private organizations.

Part of an occasional series on charter schools.

Charter schools are likely coming to Kentucky this year and that has some parents divided.

Consider opposing Louisville parents Phil Moffett and Gay Adelmann. While they agree that public schools have to improve, they disagree about whether charter schools will help or hurt Kentucky’s public school students.

Charter schools are public schools paid for with taxpayer dollars but managed by organizations other than the local public school system. Nationwide, some 6,600 charter schools operate in 43 states and the District of Columbia, serving about 3 million students.

The Republican-controlled Kentucky state legislature, which convened Part 2 of its 2017 session on Tuesday, is expected to pass legislation that allows for their operation.

While schools in Kentucky graduate more than 80 percent of their students, only about half of students can read at their grade level, and only about a third can perform math at their grade level.

Phil Moffett

Moffett, a state representative who has authored a proposal to authorize charter schools, said they would offer parents more choices and traditional schools more competition.

“The percentages should be higher,” Moffett said. “That’s why we need good choices for parents.”

Adelmann, however, who has formed a group of parents concerned about education and opposed to charters, said that charter schools would cut dollars from already underfunded schools and would not address underlying issues that undermine many students’ ability to learn.

Competition among schools creates winners and losers and provides a disincentive for schools to share best practices, Adelmann said.

“Our goal is to make sure that everyone is successful,” she said.

While the legislature still has to work out the details, charter schools generally require an authorizer that enters into a contract with a school operator, such as Carpe Diem Learning Systems or The Excel Center. Moffett said he would like authorizers to include the mayors of Lexington, Louisville, boards of public schools and accredited post-secondary institutions. A bill in the state Senate would create a pilot program for charters.

Any student would be able to attend any charter school without paying tuition. Moffett said that Kentucky’s public schools get about $13,500 per student, and that amount would follow a student to the charter school. For example, if 100 Jefferson County Public School students were to attend a charter school, that school would get $1.35 million for its operations — and JCPS would get $1.35 million less.

If the number of students who want to attend a charter school exceeds that school’s capacity, Moffett envisions a lottery that would determine which of the applicants would get to go.

Chris Brady

Chris Brady, president of the JCPS school board, said that only public school boards should be empowered to authorize charter schools, because such new institutions would affect the school district. School boards are best equipped to understand the complexity of the local school system and to determine where a charter school might help — and where it would hurt.

Brady said JCPS wants to avoid situations such as having a charter school open right across the street from a public school, which would merely duplicate services and reduce efficiencies.

The school board in previous years, when Democrats controlled the state House of Representatives, opposed charter schools.

Philosophical differences

To some extent, the different attitudes about charter schools also reflect the parents’ divergent philosophies on education in general.

Moffett, for example, attended public school through eighth grade before heading to DeSales Catholic School. Three of his four teenage sons are in private school. His oldest graduated from JCPS.

Moffett said many charter school opponents demagogue the schools as private schools or say they are a way to funnel money to corporations. What people should be afraid of, he said, is that only about half of high school graduates can read at grade level.

“Our tax dollars are for educating our public,” he said.

The state should be able to do with that money whatever is necessary to make sure kids get a good education, Moffett said.

Gay Adelmann

Adelmann, who lives in the East End but whose son just graduated from The Academy @ Shawnee, a Priority 1, or low-achieving school, in the West End, said she disagrees with the notion that the average per-student expense should follow the student, wherever he attends school.

“It’s become an entitlement mentality for the elite,” she said.

Adelmann said she still has to pay for public schools even though she has no children in school anymore — her son attends the U.S. Naval Academy — and she likes doing so not because she wants a certain dollar amount to go to a certain child, but because she wants high-quality public schools to help every child succeed so that society benefits from informed citizens and businesses benefit from employees ready for a 21st century economy.

“The whole concept of charter schools is fallacious,” she said.

Schools need to collaborate — not compete, she said.

Adelmann and Brady also worry that the push for charter schools takes the focus from addressing underlying problems that hold children back from greater academic success.

Adelmann said high-stakes testing, for example, prompts people to game the system because their jobs are on the line. A focus on standardization requires schools to test students on high-level science regardless of whether they possess the English skills to even understand the problem.

You’re expecting kids to jump an eight-foot gorge even though you haven’t taught them to clear the three-foot gorge, she said.

Brady said charter schools won’t address economic disadvantages that prompt parents to work three jobs to make ends meet. They won’t help siblings who are raising siblings because of absentee parents. They won’t address endemic poverty or drug use.

Suggesting that public schools are to blame for some students’ poor performance is unfair, Brady said. Kentuckians also fare pretty poorly in various health measures, but nobody ever blames the state’s hospitals, said Brady, who works for Norton Healthcare.

Katrina Bulkley, professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University, said a lot of factors determine student achievement, including teacher preparedness, leadership quality and how well schools function as supportive environments.

Charter schools are not an educational innovation, but a governance innovation, she said, which means that the quality of charter schools depends a lot on the rigorousness of how they are governed.

Some charter schools have really helped struggling kids, she said. But others also have caused some real damage and have taken money from kids who needed it and transferred it to for-profit corporations.

“There’s a lot that matters in the details,” Bulkley said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a magic bullet.”

Moffett said he expects Kentucky’s first charter schools to open for the 2018/19 school year. The most likely areas that will see charter schools first, he said, are Owensboro, Bowling Green, as well as counties near Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville.

Next in the series: How charter school students perform academically compared to their traditional public school peers.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.