A Local Look at Charter Schools

I’ve had my eye on developments with HB520, its signing into law by our governor, and Kentucky’s Department of Education as they promulgate regulations for enacting the law. My fellow local district Board of Education members and I will likely be reviewing charter applications for the 2018-19 school year. The more I study, the less I sleep as the date those applications may be submitted emerges from the haze on the horizon. The Board of Education has little power in an official capacity to slow the advance of charters but there is a way we stand a chance when the whole community gets involved.

On the surface, there are several common arguments on both sides. Opponents of charters point out that charters turn the education of our children over to private interests whom can operate outside of the public eye and will steal talent and resources from public school. Champions of the charter school movement will say that public schools are failing and that competition from private firms can do a better job and give parents a choice. There are certainly many more arguments for and against every intricacy one wants to debate and there isn’t time to address them all here.

As a public servant, the issues I must reconcile can be summed up easily. What is best for the students in the district I am responsible for and how are my actions bound by law?

The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) is in the process of reviewing regulations that will presumably be submitted to the Commissioner of Education for approval before the end of the month. Many of the unanswered questions that HB520 left us with are defined and addressed in the proposed regulations. The proposed regulations are available to the public through KDE’s website or through the Kentucky School Board Association’s e-meeting public portal for the meeting dated 8-2-17 and final drafts will be subject to a public hearing in the coming weeks. I encourage you to study them and perhaps find answers for questions you may have.

Before I go further I’m going to try to define the role of a district Board of Education which is primarily oversight. The Board of Education has, at most, two employees; the superintendent and the board secretary. The board is a body of elected members who hold the superintendent and thereby the district accountable. The board sets performance goals for the superintendent and sees that those goals are met within the law. You might say that the Board lays the track and the superintendent drives the train. To go a step further, you could say Kentucky law is the map that dictates where and how and when the board must lay the track with some room for innovation.

As the regulations are written currently, a charter board of directors would essentially be a superintendent of a single-school, or several-school district. A charter application is somewhat like an employment application and a charter contract would be like a contract with a superintendent, subject to renewal, non-renewal, or even revocation. The Board, as authorizer, accepts or denies applications, enters or revokes contracts, monitors performance, and provides financial and legal oversight. Kentucky law still draws the map, the charter board of directors lay the track, charter administrators drive the train, and the Board of Education makes sure that the tracks are laid according to the map.

Kentucky’s charter schools will be public charter schools and Kentucky’s Constitution mandates that the legislature provide for a common system of schools. (Section 183 – 189 if you’re interested) This means that charter schools are not exempt from state and federal regulations that apply to public schools in Kentucky. Charters are held to the same performance criteria, they cannot discriminate in matters of enrollment or expulsion and all matters in between, and their faculty is required to meet the same certifications as public-school faculty.

When it comes to considering charter applications the Board of Education will be given specific criteria on which to base its action as an authorizer. If a charter provides a plan that will meet the requirements of the laws regarding enrollment practices, fiscal policies, performance standards, and reporting requirements then the application would likely be accepted and, in fact, the regulations dictate that such an application would be accepted. Where the Board would have some discretion would be in cases where the charter organization has a history of inability to meet requirements, a history that includes closure of schools that the charter organization had run, or actions in the past of an individual charter director that broke laws. Any of these circumstances could be grounds to deny an application. Similarly, failure of a charter organization to live up to any of the standards in the contract could be grounds for non-renewal or revocation of a contract. No doubt there will be heavy scrutiny of any application that comes before the Board of Education and if there are holes in the plan, such applications would be denied.

Denial of any application by the Board of Education would result in the opportunity for the charter organization to appeal to the commissioner and receive a hearing by KDE. Denial of a charter application on the grounds of inability to meet state regulation or due to circumstances as mentioned above would likely be upheld. Denial of an application simply for the sake of denial could get sticky. Members of the KDE are appointed by the governor who, as we know, is a proponent of charter schools. Denial of an application without sufficient cause as defined by the law, would most definitely be overturned and could even lead to more direct oversight of the district Board of Education by the commissioner’s office. It occurs to me that the appeal process is a means to ensure Boards of Education in local districts can be overruled if their goal in denial is simply to keep charters out of the district altogether. This means that denial of an application and non-renewal or revocation of a contract must be based on sound evidence that the charter cannot or is not able to meet the criteria under the law.

That brings us back to the role of the local Board which is oversight. The Board of Education must see to it that any charter operating in the district adheres to the contract and the law. If the charter cannot perform at a level equal to or greater than the public schools in the district, then the charter can face consequences up to and including revocation.

If charters must be equal to or greater than public schools in terms of performance, and they will be subject to the same oversight from the same elected body as the public schools in that district, then what is the argument for or against charters really about? By regulation they will be no worse than public schools and by law their application must be considered and scrutinized and approved if they meet the criteria.

As a public servant, the issues I must reconcile can be summed up easily. What is best for the students in the district I am responsible for and how are my actions bound by law?

But what if you could stop a charter from even submitting an application in the first place?

There is a way to defeat charter schools in our district but I cannot do it alone. I need the help of parents and all tax payers. I need you to see what is happening in our public schools and to advocate for our schools. A charter school must prove that it has or can gain a sufficient number of enrollees.

Charters can only survive in a vacuum where the public schools are failing. I’m convinced that we have the most innovative, most passionate, and most successful schools in the state. As the accountability standards are changing due to SB1, we are finally free to innovate and move away from “teaching the test”. Unfortunately, tests performance is one of the few objective measures we have but there are attributes that tests cannot account for.

Reach out to principals and teachers and our superintendent and ask to visit the schools. Get involved in PTO’s and booster clubs. See for yourself what kinds of successes are coming about in our schools.

Spread the word about what you see. Educate other parents. When someone says our schools are failing, ask them what that means. Ask them if they have been in classrooms. Ask them how often they go to SBDM meetings. Help them to see what we know to be true about our schools.

If charters have no one to enroll, then they won’t spring up in our district.

There is time to consider, time for regulations to change, time for public input, and time for charter schools to prepare before the first application is submitted. I urge you to research. I ask you to provide meaningful input. I ask you to tell me why are charters bad. I ask you to tell me why charters are good. I also challenge you to come to me with evidence. Come to me with data. Come to me with more than yes or no. Come to me with the things you’ve seen in our classrooms that make you believe in what our teachers are doing.  

I was appointed to the Board of Education. Because of that I feel a tremendous responsibility to make decisions based on fact, based on what is best for the students, and based on the duties of my position within the law. I feel a responsibility to listen to each of you and factor your voice into my decisions but more importantly I feel a responsibility to help you advocate for your students and our school system.

Reach me at talktowillbarnett@gmail.com with your comments. I will be happy to share what I’ve seen and what I know.

Together, we can show that our public schools are the best alternative.

Will

Visit my website www.votewillbarnett.org

View proposed regulations as of 8-2-17 here.