LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Buffy Sexton has taught science to middle school students in Jefferson County Public Schools for nearly 15 years.

She might be the sort of experienced teacher that a charter school would want to hire.

But Sexton, who teaches at Myzeek Middle School, said she'd “never even consider” making the jump to a charter school, where she fears there would be less “stability” in her job because of fewer administrative regulations and the lack of a teachers union.

“If I’m terrible at my job, I deserve to be fired. But if I’m a good teacher, I should not be able to be fired arbitrarily,” Sexton said in an interview last week.

Charter schools are publicly funded but free from many of the administrative regulations that apply to traditional public schools.

Last month, the Republican-led state legislature approved a bill allowing for an unlimited number of charters in the state, and the first of these new schools could open as soon as the 2018-19 school year.  

State education officials will soon begin the tedious process of writing regulations that will govern everything from charter school applications to student enrollment.

But one big question looms: Just who will teach in the state’s charter schools, and will those teachers have the same level of experience and qualifications as those in traditional schools?

As it stands right now, the only stipulation the law mandates is that all charter school teachers will have to be certified by the Education Professional Standards Board, which is responsible for issuing and renewing certificates for all of the state’s teachers and administrators.

What’s not clear is if charter schools will have the same administrative protections for teachers as public schools and they may not have a union, which means -- particularly in Louisville -- that charter school teachers may get paid less.

Rep. John “Bam” Carney, the Republican lawmaker and chairman of the House Education Committee who was the sponsor of House Bill 520 said the goal was to make sure charter school teachers are qualified with the same standards as any other public school teacher.

“The places that I’ve visited and toured, I’ve been very impressed with the quality of teachers that I’ve met,” said Carney, who is also a middle school social studies teacher in Taylor County.

Lisa Grover, the senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says in many states, there have been more teacher applicants for charter schools than there were actual positions.

“It’s something new and it’s a chance to teach in a different environment with a lot less bureaucracy,” said Grover, who also helped develop Kentucky’s charter school law.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, whose department is tasked with writing the regulations for charters, says it’s too early to say what rules might apply to teachers.

However, the general rationale behind charter schools is to free them from the regulations that apply to other public schools.

“Charter schools are exempt from a lot of things – with a charter school you're getting extra flexibility in exchange for extra accountability,” Pruitt told WDRB News in an interview last week.

Pruitt says it is “probable” that charter schools will take some teachers out of the state’s current traditional public school system, but he believes there will also be opportunities to bring in other teachers.

“My experience has been that a lot of times, you get mission-driven teachers that come to those charter schools for a specific reason,” he said.

Carney says with the way the bill is written, with mayors being authorizers, “I don’t think you’ll see a large number of public charters start.”

“It’s not my intent,” he said. “I think we need to start slowly, and in that case I think we’ll have plenty of folks that are very qualified to come into the profession.”

But Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, says that he doesn’t expect many experienced teachers will make the choice to move to a charter school because “they don't know what they are getting into.”

“I think a lot of concerns most teachers have center about going into the wild, wild west of a charter school with so many unanswered questions,” McKim said.

Out of concern that some teachers may not be willing to make the jump, Carney added a provision requiring school districts to grant up to a two-year leave of absence to teachers who choose to work in a charter school, to provide an option for public school teachers to try charters.

“They’re not necessarily guaranteed their job back in that same district because obviously we can’t make Jefferson County school board protect a job for someone,” Carney said. “But we wanted them to make sure though they could come back and enter at the same status that they were at, protect benefits, those kinds of things.”

But for teachers like Sexton and Megan Seckman, the idea of leaving the protection of having a collective bargaining unit like JCTA is just “too scary.”

“I also feel a loyalty about public schools, almost like I would be turning my back on them,” Seckman said.

The new law doesn’t prohibit charter school teachers from being represented by a union, but it says that certain kinds of charter schools cannot have the same bargaining unit as that of the local school district.

In Louisville, that would mean a small number of charter school teachers would have to negotiate separately for their pay and benefits than the larger group of about 6,000 JCPS teachers who are represented by JCPS.

Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner told WDRB News in an interview that he is not concerned about attracting quality teachers to charter schools.

“Teachers in general have chosen that profession because they want to make a difference in a child’s life,” Heiner said. “I think we will have many teachers who will decide that maybe they are at a point in their life or career where they might want to teach in a different environment.”

Under Kentucky’s new law, the organizations operating charter schools must first apply and then enter into a charter agreement with charter school authorizers, which in this case will be local school boards across the state and the mayors of Louisville and Lexington.

And although charters are given flexibility with many of the state rules and regulations that public schools must adhere to, they are still held accountable to the state-mandated testing and accountability system, like other public schools.

The bill is written to allow charter school authorizers to begin approving applications in the 2017-18 year, which means that the first charter won’t likely open its doors until the 2018-19 year.

“It will go to the local school board first,” said Pruitt, whose department will oversee. “They have the right to approve or reject the application. The application then comes to us if it's rejected and the state board will make a judgment on if the local school board should reconsider it or not.”

Heiner says he’s heard from a “number of teachers who are interested in teaching in a public charter school.”

“I am hopeful we will also attract new teachers,” he said.

In the two years since leaving her Rutherford Elementary School classroom behind, Carrie Bolton has often thought about returning to the profession she once loved – perhaps at a private school in Louisville or a public school outside of Jefferson County.

“I loved my kids, I just didn’t have the support and resources I needed to do my job,” said Bolton, who has been a stay at home mother since resigning from JCPS in November 2015.

Now that charters have been approved, Bolton may have another option.

“It's certainly not out of the question, especially if they are willing to provide the resources that teachers need,” she said, adding that the burden of paying for simple things like copy paper, pencils, dry erase markers/boards, coats/socks during the winter, books, bulletin board supplies, scissors etc. “really adds up.”

And Bolton says she was not alone and there are others like her who may be looking for a change.

“Many of my teacher friends are over the system,” she said. “Teachers don't become teachers to teach to the tests or to break up fights. We do it for the love of the students and to make a difference.”

JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens says she hopes the district won’t lose any teachers to charter schools.

“I am concerned whenever a great JCPS teacher leaves one of our classrooms,” Hargens said. “I'm never happy when someone doesn't stay in JCPS. We want to retain first and then recruit great teachers.”

The Kentucky Department of Education plans to begin creating charter school regulations now that the General Assembly has concluded, spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said.

It takes on average six to nine months for regulations to be approved.

“I think charter schools can be a good tool in the tool belt,” Pruitt said. “I think the way this has come out, it is something we can work with and implement with fidelity. I think it can make a difference for a lot of our kids.”

From a teaching standpoint, Carney said the goal is to give teachers an option to have a change of scenery.

“This is not to replace traditional public school. I know many people feel that way, that that may be the case,” he said. “My goal was to provide a second option for parents if they choose to take that route to look at it to see if that’s what’s best for them and their families.”

Seckman, who teaches at Meyzeek Middle in JCPS, says she likes the “idea of charter schools” but adds she “would like to use some of those concepts in public education to work with what we already have.”

“Give us some of that flexibility in public schools,” she said.

As a public school teacher in one of Kentucky’s districts of innovation, Carney says he has “seen the benefits of less regulation in public schools.”

“I certainly hear what a lot of teachers say, ‘Well, give us all that same flexibility.’ And as we go forward and if we find regulations that public charters are not having to do that are effective and help kids – I’m going to be the first one to say let’s get rid of it for everybody,” he said.

“I think, I guess, in some ways (we can) kind of use the public charters as mini-labs to see what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s certainly not my goal as the sponsor to attack or take away traditional public education. This is a supplement that I think thousands of students could benefit from, and if that works for thousands of kids -- then we’ve done our job.”

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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