FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) — Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has signed a bill that would allow charter schools to operate in the state.
The signing came on Tuesday, less than a week after the Kentucky Senate and House passed the revised bill.
Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, was the sponsor of House Bill 520, which passed the Senate last Wednesday with a vote of 23-15 around 4:50 p.m. Five hours later, it passed the Kentucky House 53-43.
The bill allows for school boards and only the mayors of Louisville and Lexington to approve charter schools in those districts or cities. Earlier last week, the Senate Education Committee added language saying charter school teachers must be a qualified teacher and that students will not be able to go to a charter school across county lines unless a regional charter is created.
The changes also require mayors to provide written notice saying they want to be an authorizer of charters and clarified that only the mayor of Louisville would be able to authorize charter schools in Jefferson County, as opposed to mayors from the county’s smaller cities.
The bill is written to allow charter school authorizers, such as school boards and mayors, to begin approving applications in the 2017-18 year. It’s too soon to say when and where the first charter schools will be permitted to open.
After passing the full Senate amid criticism from Democrats on how charter schools would be funded, Republican senators fought back and filed an amendment to an unrelated House budget bill — House Bill 471 — which seeks to transfer federal funds and state money to cover the costs of students who move to charter schools.
Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, was furious at the move, saying “this is one of the worst things I have seen happen to public education in my lifetime.”
During the House debate, Carney said that public charter schools will give Kentuckians more choices when it comes to public education.
“The reality is we have a system that does not work for every child in Kentucky,” he said. “We teach to the middle. Too many folks are being left behind.”
House Bill 520 was first introduced on Feb. 17 and has been one of the most heavily debated this legislative session. Charter schools are public schools with special contracts allowing them to operate outside normal rules and regulations and are run by private groups.
Sen. Gerald Neal unsuccessfully attempted to make amendments to HB 520 to “help strengthen bill.” He wanted to suspend the rules so the amendments can be filed and called, but the motion to suspend the rules failed.
Neal said charter schools have a spotty record, adding “just because they’re successful some place, doesn’t mean they’ll be successful here.”
He also criticized the process of passing the bill: “This is not a game. There are consequences here.”
Jones asked if charter schools would be subject to Kentucky’s open records law, to which Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, replied yes. Jones also said if the charter bill passes and is signed into law, it should be challenged as unconstitutional.
Jones said if there’s a problem with public schools, the state should address those problems and not create new schools.
He added that charter schools “will lead to economic and in many cases, racial segregation” and that the only way to fund charters is to take money out of the state’s public schools, which he said is “so wrong” because public schools aren’t properly funded to begin with.
Bevin was among those who testified in support of the legislation during the committee meeting.
“In all the states that this has been implemented, the public education system has never been made worse,” Bevin said. “Never. And in fact it has heightened everyone’s game and children are better for it.”
And while the changes made to the bill on Friday were generally praised by those opposed to charter schools, there was still some fundamental disagreement among lawmakers.
During the committee meeting, Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, asked to amend the bill to “explicitly” preclude for-profit organizations from applying to open charter schools, but Givens wasn’t willing to accept it because his understanding of House Bill 520 already precludes for-profit entities from applying.
Former House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, was among those to vote against the bill late Wednesday. He said charter schools would be ventures governed by what he described as “for-profit” companies.
“If you believe it’s unfair for a for-profit management company to take money away from your school system, you can’t vote for this bill,” he said. “These management companies have to make money, folks.”
Opponents of the bill, which include Jefferson County Board of Education chairman Chris Brady, asked lawmakers to slow down.
“I’m kind of surprised at the rate at which this legislation has gone through,” Brady said. “It hasn’t really given anyone a chance or at least the public a chance to weigh in on this as far as the changes go.”
If the bill becomes law, Kentucky would become the 44th state nationally to allow public charter schools, according to the Kentucky Charter School Project, an advocacy group.
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a statement applauding the Kentucky General Assembly for passing charter school legislation.
“The flexibility offered by public charter schools encourages teachers and administrators to use good judgment in innovative ways to produce positive results for Kentucky children,” McConnell said. “Most importantly, public charter schools give parents additional options when selecting the school that is right for their child, particularly when they feel the needs of their child aren’t being met through the traditional public school model.”
Reporter Antoinette “Toni” Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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