The recently completed Kentucky General Assembly session was a relatively bipartisan and productive one. But partisanship and special interest politics prevented passage of some good bills. Senate Bill 176 was one.
Arne Duncan, the U. S. Secretary of Education says, "When a school continues to perform in the bottom five percent of the state and isn't showing signs of progress or has graduation rates below 60 percent over a number of years, something dramatic needs to be done."
SB 176 would have done something dramatic to improve Kentucky's persistently low-achieving schools, or "PLAs." The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Senators Mike Wilson of Bowling Green and Dan Seum of Louisville, would have let local school boards, parents, or certified staff and teachers initiate a process to transform PLAs into charter schools.
"Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are free to be more innovative and are held accountable for improved student achievement," explains Kentuckians Advocating Reform in Education. KARE adds, "There are currently over 4,900 public charter schools open in 40 states and D.C., serving more than 1.6 million students."
Charter schools offer a variety of education options that recognize the differences in the way kids learn. They have flexibility and innovate in areas like "curriculum design, extended learning time, school cultures with high expectations for all students and adults, more structured and disciplined learning environments, rewarding high-quality teachers with higher pay, parent contracts, and multi-age programs," KARE says.
Kentucky is one of only eight states that do not allow charter schools in any form. Why not? The main reason is opposition from teachers' unions like the Kentucky Education Association and the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) and the domination those unions exercise over Democratic politicians.
Significantly, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday supported SB 176. He noted that the money, resources, and special attention lavished on PLAs, especially in Jefferson County where most of them are clustered, have not had the desired effect.
Holliday said, "What we've done for the last three years has not worked. So, I think it may be time to try something else. I don't think it could get any worse."
SB 176 passed the Republican-controlled state Senate 22-15 on an essentially party line vote. GOP Senator Brandon Smith opposed the bill. Then, like more ambitious charter school measures before it, the bill died in the Education Committee of the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives.
Carl Rollins of Midway chairs that committee. Rollins is employed by the Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation (KHESLC). Brent McKim, president of the JCTA, is a KHESLC board member. McKim and JCTA adamantly oppose charters. Rollins regularly blocks charter school bills and backs legislative placebos instead.
Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent Donna Hargens and school board members should have been in Frankfort demanding the additional option that SB 176 would have given them for turning around their numerous PLAs. Otherwise, as Holliday recently made clear, the state may be forced to "take over" some of these failing JCPS schools soon.
Holliday made headlines when he used the term "academic genocide" to describe the lack of progress in turning around Louisville's several PLAs. He explained, "Only 40 percent of the kids are even graduating from high school, and less than 20 percent are ready for college or careers." Holliday added, "We can't wait much longer for these kids.
Jerry Stephenson, State Director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group working for changes to "increase access to high-quality educational options for black children," concurs. "We need some tools in the tool chest other than one system that sets the agenda for everybody and everybody has to follow that agenda."
Under such desperate circumstances it is unconscionable for teachers' unions and Democratic legislators to stonewall the very limited experiment with charters that SB 176 represents. Senator Wilson says he will bring the bill up again next year. Citizens should demand its passage.
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