The Bevin administration and House Republican leadership – despite hard pushes for other platform priorities such as right-to-work and prevailing-wage repeal – may settle for a mediocre charter-school bill.
This is a testament to the stronghold the public-education complex has on our commonwealth and to its willingness to put money and control before students’ best interests.
Charter-school legislation has passed the state Senate for years, including Sen. Mike Wilson’s bill last year that sailed through with a 28-9 vote but ran aground before reaching the other end of the Capitol – a pattern we’ve seen for years.
Then came Election Night 2016 when the GOP took control of the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a century.
Voters handed Republicans supermajority status in the historic November election and seemed to say – as they had to then-candidate Matt Bevin during the previous year’s gubernatorial campaign: “Go to Frankfort, make the tough decisions and don’t worry about your re-election.”
Legislators led by a new and energized majority leadership responded by passing seven bills in the session’s historic first week concluding with an equally momentous Saturday session despite threats from protesting union bosses in the halls of the Capitol to defeat them in the next election.
Then came the charter-school bills.
Rep. Phil Moffett’s House Bill 103 would have allowed mayors in Kentucky’s largest cities, the Council on Postsecondary Education as well as colleges and universities with accredited education colleges to serve as charter-school authorizers – a best practice working well in other states.
Then superintendents, teachers-union bosses and the public-education complex in general threatened to make this the last term in Frankfort for anyone supporting a strong charter-school bill.
Along came Rep. John “Bam” Carney’s House Bill 520, limiting authorizers to local school boards except for mayors in Metro Louisville and Lexington, albeit with an appeals process to the Kentucky Board of Education. That bill passed the Kentucky House and now sits in the Senate Education Committee.
So, education-complex threats may be strong enough to force Kentucky policymakers to settle for a bill, the mediocrity of which mirrors this state’s education system in which, as Moffett notes, only 51 percent of high-schoolers can read at grade level and just 38 percent are proficient in math.
The Bevin administration sees Carney’s bill as an opportunity to get the door opened for charter schools in one of only seven remaining states without charters.
But even Bevin conceded he “would have liked to have seen more than is in this bill” while insisting “we have to factor in what is possible.”
Another possibility, of course, is to wait until a stronger bill can be passed – not the first time we’ve mentioned in this column that route for serious consideration.
At the very least, facts should drive the debate that will take place in the coming days in Frankfort, including this one: charter-school creation is much-more robust in states with multiple authorizing agencies.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports there were 6,723 charter schools in the United States during 2015, of which 93 percent – or 6,241 – were in states with multiple authorizers. Only 482 – or 7 percent – exist in states that limit authorizers to local school boards.
For sure, the angst and debate regarding charter-school policy will test the political mettle of those sent to Frankfort by constituents assuming they would be in favor of strong reforms to our education system, which consumes 60 cents of every taxpayer dollar.
Will they stand up to the teachers unions’ uninformed and angry zealotry?
Will they fight for poor and at-risk children who stand to gain the most from great charter schools and who have no other voice but ours?
Will the best interests of thousands of young Kentuckians stuck in hundreds of mediocre and failing schools find a seat at the legislative table and a place in that debate?
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read his weekly Bluegrass Beacon column at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.