Lewis vs. Solomon: Does Kentucky need charter schools?

Opening Statement: Dr. Lewis 

Kentucky has made significant improvements in education since the 1980s. Since passage of the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in 1990, the state’s education system has improved from being one of the absolute worst in the country to now being near the top of the bottom third of systems in the nation.

That progress is significant and commendable. Because of the forward-thinking and pioneering actions of Kentuckians to whom we will forever be indebted, the commonwealth’s schools are no longer in danger of being dead-last in the nation; and God-willing, we will never be in that position again.

But our progress should not be taken by Kentuckians to mean that there is not still much to be done. One of the most significant educational challenges we face is inequity. It is still the reality in some parts of our state that a child’s socioeconomic status will determine the quality of education provided to him. 

For too many children in our state, the only public school option available to them is a failing school, or a school that cannot – or will not – meet their learning needs.

Achievement gaps remain and are holding steady in Kentucky between: low-income students and their middle class and affluent peers, students with special needs and their typical peers, and students of color and White students. Kentucky’s achievement gaps are shameful, and as a state, I know we can do much better. 

All of our children deserve the opportunity to attend a high quality public school. But in order for all children in Kentucky to have that opportunity, parents of children trapped in schools that don’t meet their learning needs must have additional high quality public school options. Passing charter school legislation in Kentucky is essential to providing parents with those options. 

Will passing charter school legislation fix all that ails education in Kentucky? Of course not. But passing a strong charter school law will absolutely result in the creation of additional high quality public-school options for children currently trapped in schools that none of us would want our children to attend.

Here are some facts about charter schools: 

  • All charter schools are public schools of choice; every single charter school in the U.S. is a public school. That means charter schools are open to the public and may not charge tuition. In fact, lotteries oftentimes are held for open seats in charter schools since the number of applicants usually far exceeds the number of openings.
  • The only way students attend charter schools is if their parents send them there; no students are automatically assigned to a charter school.
  • Charter school students take state-required standardized assessments just like all other public school students do.
  • Charter schools nationally serve approximately the same percentage of children with special needs as traditional public schools assist.

With the charter school legislation proposed in Kentucky during the 2014 session of the Kentucky General Assembly (House Bill 85), charter schools would be funded like every other public school. Each charter school would receive a per-pupil allocation based on the number of students enrolled in that school. That fact is important for a few reasons: 

  • First, note that funding for education in Kentucky follows students to whatever school they attend. If a student attends a school in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) district, the funds follow her to JCPS. If a student were to leave JCPS to attend an Oldham County school, the funds would follow her to Oldham County. In the same way, if a student left JCPS to attend a charter school, the funds would follow her to the charter school.
  • Also, if no parents sent their children to a charter school – since no students are assigned to charter schools – the school would not receive funding and would be forced to close. The only way a charter school can open and remain open is if parents want their children to be there.

For a while in 2009 and 2010, it looked like Kentucky lawmakers and educational leaders would consider adopting charter school legislation in an effort to win federal funding as a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program. Through that program, the U.S. Department of Education awarded grants to states for education-reform initiatives from a pot of $4.35 billion. After a great deal of political posturing, the Kentucky General Assembly failed to adopt a charter school law. 

Although the proposed measure in 2010 would have only allowed for the conversion of chronically low-performing schools into charter schools, critics of the proposal argued that a last-minute change in the state’s Race to the Top application allowing for charter schools in Kentucky would have derailed the nearly unanimous support of the state’s school districts. In reality, however, unanimous support was not what lawmakers were afraid of losing. Instead, they were afraid of losing the support of the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) and the Jefferson County Teachers’ Association (JCTA). 

At the time, Kentucky education commissioner Terry Holliday claimed the loss of district support for the application as a result of including charters could be more costly to the state’s application than not including the charter schools provision. But Commissioner Holiday was wrong. In the end, it was Kentucky’s failure to adopt legislation allowing for the creation of high quality charter schools that doomed Kentucky’s chances of earning Race to the Top funding.

So why do teachers’ unions like the KEA and JCTA so adamantly oppose the passage of charter school legislation in Kentucky? The reason is actually pretty simple. Under the proposed charter school legislation in Kentucky, teachers in charter schools would not be eligible for tenure, and any current collective bargaining agreement between a local school district and a teachers’ union (i.e. JCTA contract) would not apply to teachers in a charter school. 

Those proposed provisions of the law are intended to give charter school leaders the flexibility needed to recruit, select, supervise, evaluate, and if need be, terminate school staff based on performance rather than seniority. That kind of flexibility is necessary for school leaders to make the kinds of changes needed to meet students’ needs (as opposed to just keeping adults happy). 

As you might imagine, KEA and JCTA are not big fans of that brand of performance accountability for teachers. But no teacher would ever be assigned to a charter school. The only teachers that would teach in charter schools are those that choose to apply and are selected to teach in one. Teachers who have no interest in being evaluated based on the performance of their students would be free to remain in JCPS with the protections of its JCTA collective bargaining agreement.


Finally, the specifics of charter school laws vary significantly from state to state. Some states’ laws have produced high quality public charter school options for families. Other states have not written thoughtful charter school laws. The results of those poorly crafted policies are charter schools that perform at or below the levels of traditional public schools, and serious deficiencies in charter school performance monitoring and accountability. 

Because Kentucky has yet to pass a charter school law, lawmakers have the benefit of learning from the successes and failures of other states. I believe Rep. Brad Montell’s charter school bill (HB 85) incorporated many of the lessons that we in Kentucky have learned since passage of the nation’s first charter school legislation in 1991 in Minnesota. 

The stakes are too high for too many children in Kentucky to continue with the political games surrounding charter school legislation. Let’s put our heads together and pass a charter school law in Kentucky that will benefit our children, our families and our state.

Opening Statement: Dr. Solomon 

To understand charter schools better, we need to trace their history. 

In 1955, libertarian economist Milton Friedman proposed that the government provide vouchers to parents to pay for enrollment in private schools instead of providing money directly to the public schools. Friedman’s rationale was that competition would improve all schools, but at the same time, this would essentially have abolished the public school system in America. 

Although his suggestion was not taken seriously, free-market proponents since then have been trying desperately to dismantle and privatize K-12 schools. First it was vouchers and now charter schools, which are just another form of privatization. Neither vouchers nor charter schools are generally good for education or for our children. 

In 1967, President Reagan came into office as California’s governor, again proposing vouchers. Reagan during his political career even vowed to eliminate the federal Department of Education. But his efforts were not successful in either cause. After Reagan’s push for vouchers proved unpopular, voucher advocates in state governments came up with what seemed like a more palatable end run called “charter schools.” 

Although proponents like to call them public schools because they receive public funding by siphoning off money originally meant for public schools, charters really are private schools that are run by private individuals or private corporations.

They are completely outside the public school system when it comes to policies regarding teacher qualifications, acceptance of handicapped kids or curriculum content. This idea was quite attractive to many state legislators who eschewed tax hikes to fund vouchers but who were eager to take money away from public schools to fund charters. 

Fast forward to 2001 when George W. Bush became president. One of his first acts was to propose tuition vouchers that would allow public school students to attend private schools. Congress balked at the idea, so his advisors developed Plan B, which was designed to prove that public schools were inferior. This plan would create an impossible goal whereby all children in public schools would need to score above-average on achievement tests. 

No, it wasn’t presented in those words. The words were more subtle. It created several levels of student achievement such as: “basic,” “apprentice,” “proficient” and “distinguished.” 

The Bush plan – called “No Child Left Behind” – demanded that all public school children in the United States be required to score “proficient” by 2014, with “proficient” meaning “above average.” The plan was intended to show that virtually every public school district in the country was failing and, so the theory went, the public would demand vouchers to rectify this seemingly horrible situation. 

The plan called for increasing the required percentage of students that score above average each year until 2014 when all of them were required to do so. As the years went on and the percentage of schools with children that failed to reach the “proficient” level increased, charter school operators used that fact to propose that their schools would be more capable and state legislators used it to approve charters in most states. 

There were estimated to be more than 6,000 charter schools serving about 2.3 million students  during the 2012-13 school year. Charter schools are created by state governments with many different sets of rules under which they are established and operated. But there are several significant problems: 

  • Charters are appealing to free-marketers, but also to those wanting to make a profit by cutting corners, people making jobs for themselves and those desiring a religious education.
  • Proponents claim that parents need school choice in deciding what is best for their children and that public schools don’t allow that. But they do. People very often purchase home locations based on schools.
  • Charters can be operated by people without any educational or managerial experience, which results in far too many mismanaged charter schools by too many operators with inadequate educational capability. And they can hire teachers without any educational background or experience.
  • While charters are typically required to accept any child whose parents apply, many can skirt this requirement by discouraging families from enrolling underserved children in order to boost test scores, especially when enrollment reaches the limit.

Advocates claim that charters will provide a better education than public schools, but those claims appear seriously flawed and groundless. While a small percentage may well be excellent, the vast majority are not. 

A 2009 Stanford University study of 15 states containing 70 percent of the nation’s charter schools revealed that 83 percent of charter schools were either inferior to or no better than public schools. A 2013 Stanford follow-up study of 27 states, which included 95 percent of the students in U.S. charter schools, found a slight improvement. But in that study, 71 percent of charter schools were still either inferior to or no better than public schools.  

The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute looked at 19 studies in 11 states and found that there is no evidence that, on average, charters outperform publics. A 2010 Department of Education study of Washington D.C. charters found the same. And because charter-school records are private, it becomes impossible to police them – and just as difficult to close those found to be either seriously inadequate or fraudulent. 

Test scores of children in charter schools cannot be taken seriously for several reasons: 

  • The most-involved parents enroll their children in charters. We know that parental involvement is a key factor in academic achievement. Thus children with parental support should outperform the average. But then, these kids are compared with all public-school children – those with and without parental support.
  • Kids who perform poorly in charters frequently drop out so only the better students remain.
  • Widespread falsification of test scores is rampant.

Consequently, it is not possible to validly compare achievement test scores of charter and public school children. That would be like comparing lemons to limes. 

However, these burning issues – whether charters outperform publics or parents need choice – seem largely irrelevant because the most distressing aspect of – and the primary reason to reject – charter schools is that charters skim off scarce funds from public schools that already find themselves financially challenged. 

When these funds are diverted to charters, the public school system must make cuts to educational services for children. That cannot be good for our kids. Charter schools are not good for Kentucky because they would weaken our public schools. 

Read the entire debate here:

Response #1: Dr. Lewis

Dr. Solomon’s opening statement contains both generalizations and a selective historical account of charter schools in America. 

While he accurately credits Milton Friedman as a proponent of incorporating free-market principles in education, primarily through vouchers, charter schools were not Friedman’s education reform. The charter-school concept is based on Henry Hudson’s charter with the East India Company to explore the Arctic in 1609. That charter document detailed the purpose of Hudson’s trip along with its risks, accountability requirements, procedures for compensation and rewards for productivity. 

But it is Ray Budde who is widely credited as the father of the charter school idea. Budde’s concept developed in the mid-1970s was rather straightforward: he thought a charter (contract) between teachers and parents could be similarly developed and used. Budde’s idea gained popularity with Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who pushed through the adoption of the idea with the AFT. 

The charter school concept has evolved considerably from Budde’s initial charter idea, and today, charter schools may be generally described as semi-autonomous public schools that are expected to meet high academic performance standards in exchange for their increased autonomy. The first charter school legislation came in 1991 in Minnesota, and today 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some variant of charter school legislation, with approximately 6,000 charter schools now in operation. 

The details of what charter schools vary from state to state, which matters tremendously. In fact, the idiosyncrasies of state charter school laws make it difficult to speak of charters as a singular. 

For example, Virginia’s charter school law permits only local school districts to serve as authorizers of charter schools in the state, while Indiana’s law grants multiple entities the authority to authorize charter schools, including local school boards, public four-year universities, the mayor of Indianapolis, a state charter school board and non-profit colleges or universities. Further, Massachusetts has capped charter school growth in the state at 120 schools; New York’s charter school law caps the number of start-up charter schools in the state at 460; and Iowa does not cap the growth of charter schools at all.  

One of the few things we can say about charter schools generally is that the schools are grounded in site-based management theory, which espouses that key decisions should be made at the school building level as opposed to the district central office or state level. But other than that, there is extreme variation across states in terms of what charter schools are and how they operate.

So, if charter school policies are written at the state level – meaning lawmakers in each state decide what charter schools are, who can authorize them, how they will be authorized, how they will be held accountable, who they will be held accountable to and how they will be funded – how can Dr. Solomon and other charter-school opponents make such bold claims about what charter schools are or are not in Kentucky? 

Does Kentucky not have the opportunity to write legislation defining what a charter school will be – with the benefit of lessons learned in other states? 

I guess what bothers me most about the current charter school debate in Kentucky is that charter opponents, including Dr. Solomon, would much rather attack charter school legislation and policy decisions from other states than talk reasonably about what charter advocates in Kentucky are actually proposing.

House Bill 85 filed in the 2014 session of the Kentucky General Assembly details what charter school supporters in Kentucky are proposing. 

In an effort to be as clear and as transparent as possible here, the following are key elements of what the Kentucky Charter Schools Association (KCSA) has advocated for and would like to see in a charter school law for Kentucky:

  • A pilot program to allow a variety of types of public charter schools, including new start-ups and conversion charter schools.
  • At least 50 percent of the charter schools opened would have to be located within a three-mile radius of a public school in which a minimum of 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • The pilot program would contain a preference for applicants in districts where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, are identified as at-risk of academic failure or have special needs.
  • Legislation must prohibit charter schools from engaging in any sectarian practices in their educational programs, admissions, employment policies and operations.
  • Legislation must ensure that all students have equal and free access to public charter schools by requiring transparent lottery, admissions and enrollment policies.
  • Legislation must provide an exemption for charter schools from participation in any district collective bargaining agreements.
  • Legislation must provide a minimum of two authorizing options for charter applicants (at least one authorizing option for applicants other than the local board of education).

I welcome a public conversation about what the Kentucky Charter Schools Association is actually asking for in a charter school law in Kentucky. That conversation would be a useful one. 

Response #1: Dr. Solomon

Dr. Lewis states: “charter schools may be generally described as semi-autonomous public schools that are expected to meet high academic performance standards in exchange for their increased autonomy.”   

Let us parse this sentence. First of all, charter schools are anything but public and are almost entirely autonomous. They are private schools parading as public schools. Their board meetings are private; their teachers’ credentials are private; their salaries are private; their profits are private and they are run by private individuals or private corporations – many of which are in it to just make a buck. The only thing public about them is they siphon off scarce funds from public schools and thereby weaken the public school system.

As far as meeting high academic standards, charter schools do not even come close and yet they seduce parents into thinking that their children will be transformed into excellent students if only they enroll.  

Let me put it succinctly: Charter schools are a national nightmare. No, I’m wrong – they are worse because when you awaken from a nightmare, the bad guys are gone. But when you wake up to charter schools, they still exist.

Let me explain. Charter schools in America are given wide latitude that public schools do not have in regard to hiring and firing practices, curriculum design, teacher pay and qualifications. Since parents must petition to enroll children in charter schools, only children with involved and devoted parents are enrolled. And we know that parental involvement in children’s schooling is a major factor in academic success. In addition, charter schools can expel children who exhibit aberrant behavior or are unwilling to perform assignments. 

Now with all of these advantages that public schools do not possess, virtually every charter school should produce superior academic performing students. Well guess what? The vast, vast majority of charter schools do not. Since the idea behind charter schools was born in Milwaukee in 1990, charter proponents have been pushing the idea that charters would be superior to public schools. But even at that early date, a University of Wisconsin study found that those schools were no more effective than public schools (p.1). 

The 2005 U.S. Department of Education fourth-grade nationwide study of 150 charter schools found that in mathematics, fourth-grade charter school students as a whole did not perform as well as their public school counterparts (p.1), and that in reading, there was no measurable difference in performance.

In 2009, the conservative-leaning Hoover Institute at Stanford University found that 83 percent of charter schools were either inferior to or no better than public schools (p.46). And a 2013 Hoover follow-up to the 2009 study examined charter schools in 27 states, which included 95 percent of all charter school children in the country. This latest study – the most comprehensive thus far – found a slight improvement, but 71 percent of charter schools were still either inferior to or no better than public schools.(p.86).

Ohio grades the academic performance of children with a letter grade: “A, B, C, D and F.” Schools graded “D” and “F” could be considered failing schools. In Ohio, which has 353 charter schools, the poor performance of charter schools in 2013 was even more disturbing: 64 percent  of charter schools were graded “D” or “F,” (p.9) while only 12 percent of public schools were graded the same (tabulation from spreadsheet). And worse, 87 percent of Ohio’s charter schools were given “D” or “F” ratings regarding meeting state standards (tabulation). 

To make matters worse, on a national level, public schools outscored charter schools in the 2011 NAEP test, the Nation’s Report Card (p.1), in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading and in eighth-grade science. 

The rosy picture that charter school advocates paint is largely a fantasy. Proponents want to make you think that charter schools are the salvation of the American educational system. But the truth is, they cause more problems than they solve and that’s why they are a nightmare to be avoided.  

But then, why would anyone in his right mind expect anything different? If you would staff a hospital with doctors, some of which have not even gone to medical school, and nurses, some of which have no experience, what would you expect? You would not expect that hospital to be able to provide better care than one that had rigid standards and well-trained professionals.

By the same logic, charter schools cannot be expected to provide high academic performance when they so often rely upon untrained and inexperienced people.  

And another part of this problem is that once these charters are established, it is very difficult to control or discipline them. Their records are private so the public cannot find out where the public’s money goes, how it is used and who is receiving it. In huge numbers of cases, charter school operators pay themselves or worse, commit fraud, and shortchange the students.

But the very worst aspect – and the primary reason to reject charter schools – is that the money to fund them invariably comes out of the dollars initially allocated to a public school district. When children transfer to a charter, the money is deducted from the public school allocation and transferred to the charter school. When a few public school children from this class or that class transfer to a charter, the cost to operate the school they leave does not decrease, but the funding does. Thus, the schools have less money with which to operate but still have the same costs, which means that the public schools must cut services and that cannot be good for our kids.

Unfortunately, charter proponents refuse to accept the conclusion borne out by massive amounts of research data that the vast majority of charter schools do not measure up to the expectations and hype that accompany them and they continue to put lipstick on this “pig.” 

Bottom-line question for Kentuckians: Why would anyone in their right mind want to cripple our public schools by reducing their funding in order to create charter schools when the data demonstrate unequivocally that charters are unable to provide the high academic performance they claim to deliver? 

Let’s not create a nightmare of our own making.  

Response #2: Dr. Lewis 

I find it very unfortunate that instead of engaging in conversation about what charter school advocates in Kentucky are actually proposing, Dr. Solomon has chosen to continue to spend time making assertions that are flat-out untrue. And his insistence on putting forth myths, I believe, wastes time and space that would be better spent debating the merits of the charter school law that we have actually proposed.

This will be the very last word I will say here about the outlandish insistence that charter schools are not public schools. In every state and the District of Columbia where charter schools operate, they are public schools. They receive public funds, they are tuition-free and they are open to the public. To suggest that charter schools are not public schools in the year 2014 is both ridiculous and an insult to the 42 states and the District of Columbia where they operate. 

Would Dr. Solomon suggest that charter schools have somehow just fooled state legislatures into allocating public school funding to private schools? Such an assertion would be ridiculous and I will no longer entertain the question of whether charter schools are public schools.

Regarding some of the generalizations and myths that Dr. Solomon continues to put forward, again, I would first remind him that New York’s charter school law is different from the District of Columbia’s law, which is different from North Carolina’s law. Kentucky’s charter school law would spell out exactly what charter schools would be in Kentucky and how they would operate. 

I find it fascinating that Dr. Solomon continues to ignore that fundamental truth about charter schools. Instead, in order to trash all charter schools and laws, he continues making generalizations that everyone knows to be false. 

To be honest, I think I can make a stronger case than Dr. Solomon that some states’ charter school laws are terrible, and the performance of charter schools in those states has suffered because of weak charter school laws that permit the awarding of charters to subpar applicants and require very little of charter school authorizers in terms of holding charter schools accountable for agreed-upon performance outcomes. Those are the states Kentucky should not look to as models.

But the assertion that all states’ charter school laws are the same and that the performance of all charter schools has been dismal is untruthful, misleading, and frankly, saddening. 

Some of the most recent and reliable research on charter schools comes from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. Findings from its 2013 National Charter School Study update the findings of its 2009 study, which found significant variance in quality among charter schools, with students in charter schools not faring as well in the aggregate as those attending traditional public schools. 

In CREDO’s 2013 study, which looked at the performance of students attending charter schools in 26 states and New York City, students attending charter schools had greater learning gains than their traditional public school peers in reading and equivalent learning gains in mathematics. 

Further, economically disadvantaged students, African-American students and students who were English Language Learners (ELLs) gained significantly more days of learning each year in reading and mathematics compared to their traditional public school-attending peers. And the performance differences between students attending charter schools and their traditional public school peers were strongest among economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students and Hispanic students who were ELLs.

In terms of charter school accountability, the Kentucky Charter Schools Association (KCSA) has proposed that Kentucky adopt a charter school law that includes an automatic closure provision. All states do not have automatic closure provisions. (As I have said previously, charter school laws and thus charter schools themselves vary from state to state.) 

The question of how charter schools are held accountable is just one of the areas where there is substantial variation in state laws. Automatic-closure provisions are now a part of charter school laws in states, including California, Mississippi, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington State. 

The addition of these provisions to state charter school laws has been for one of two reasons: In some states, like Ohio, charter school authorizers had not done an adequate job of closing charter schools that continued to perform below standard, so state legislatures enacted automatic closure provisions to tie authorizers’ hands and ensure that charter schools perform at or above the level of traditional public schools. Charter schools that fail to meet those agreed-upon academic performance standards must be shut down. 

Other states, such as Washington, only recently adopted a charter school law, and included automatic closure provisions to ensure that from the very beginning, charter schools would perform at the agreed-upon levels of academic performance or be shut down. In essence, learning from the experiences of other states, Washington’s automatic-closure provision was intended to prevent some of the problems other states have experienced.

Automatic-closure provisions are but one of the many areas of variation that we see with charter school laws. The addition of such provisions in state laws is based on what we have collectively learned across the country about creating the policy environment necessary to grow successful charter schools in a state. Kentucky is in an optimal position to take those lessons and incorporate them into what could be a national model for charter school legislation.

Response #2: Dr. Solomon

It’s interesting – and understandable – that Dr. Lewis would be so insistent on labeling charter schools as public schools. Charter school advocates want the public to think that they are public schools so the bad medicine will go down easier. But I’m here to reveal the bad medicine.  

First, let’s be clear: While charter schools may possess some of the characteristics of public schools, they are unlike them in so many ways. They are operated by private individuals or corporations and, unlike public schools, don’t have to follow most state requirements for public schools; many of their dealings are private and they – unlike public schools – can make a profit. Labeling charter schools as public schools would be like calling a horse a type of cow because both have four legs.

 The most salient feature akin to public schools is that they usurp public school money to operate. The proposed charter-school legislation that thankfully failed to pass in Kentucky during this year’s General Assembly states: “A charter school shall be deemed an independent and autonomous school (p.23).” Does that sound like a public school? Of course not.

Charter-school proponents want to call them public because it masks the huge differences with public schools. They like to dress up this “pig” with fancy clothing and adorn it with lipstick.  

Why is this “pig” not good for Kentucky and why would it be a curse rather than the blessing supporters would have you believe it is? Let me count the ways:

  • The charter school advocates in Kentucky are proposing to siphon off money that would otherwise go to public school districts and divert those funds to charter schools. If this were done, the school districts’ funding decreases even though the costs for operating public schools remain constant. Therefore, public school districts would be forced to reduce services to children.
  • Additionally, charter advocates propose to require that all charter employees become eligible for retirement benefits, even though the Kentucky state retirement system is already overburdened with $13 billion in unfunded liabilities.
  • In addition, the charter school proposal demands that all employees be provided with state health and life insurance. That means that if you start a charter school with your wife and five children and they work in any capacity at your school, then all seven people would be provided with health and life insurance benefits. Does this sound like a welfare system for charter school operators?

So we really need to go no further in this debate as to whether Kentucky should authorize charter schools. Our public schools cannot be expected to offer high quality education and, at the same time, have their funding sucked away by charter schools. And Kentucky cannot afford to add untold numbers of charter school employees to an already challenged retirement, health and life insurance system. Because of these factors, the response should be clear and simple: “no” to charter schools in Kentucky.

But wait, there is more. 

Charter schools nationally have a sad record compared to public schools. In the most thorough, national assessment of charter schools performed by the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University, which included 95 percent of all charter school students in the country, only 29 percent of charter schools were found to be superior to public schools (p.86). If you were a betting person and you had only a 29 percent chance of winning, would you bet? Of course not. And so it is with charters.

But this is what you would expect considering: 

  • Charters don’t require certified teachers and in the proposal for Kentucky, anyone with a bachelor’s degree would be allowed to teach – even if they got that degree for $25 on the Internet.
  • Charters could hire anyone they desire because there would be no practical way to police credentials.
  • Charters would not require certified principals, and the pay scales typically are well below public school salaries for teachers.
  • The physical facilities would very often be second-rate building that are scrounged from vacant structures or borrowed space.

As a result, one would normally expect charters to underperform. And they do underperform. In a comparison with public schools, charter schools in the United States scored below public schools in reading and math at the fourth and eighth grade levels on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation’s Report Card.

Despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, the national experience tells us that it is extremely unlikely that charter schools would improve education for Kentucky’s children. It’s more likely that these schools will underperform while, at the same time, bleeding money from our public schools. So why take a chance on a bad bet?

There is more.

Charter proponents also want to create a Public Charter School Commission that would authorize new charter schools and monitor their performance. But guess what? This Commission would put the inmates in charge of the prison, so to speak. Why? Because the nine commission members would be required to possess a commitment to charter schooling as a strategy for strengthening public education (p.10). That is, members would be required to swear allegiance to charter schools. Thus, unbiased persons with no axe to grind would be persona non grata and not allowed to serve on the Commission.  

But wait, there’s more.

Dr. Lewis says that the proposed regulations for Kentucky correct mistakes made by other states by including a provision for “automatic closure,” in which poor performing schools would be automatically closed down. 

But no such provision is proposed. Instead, the proposed legislation would make it very difficult to close down an underperforming charter school in Kentucky. A charter school would be initially given a five year life (p.18). After that, an underperforming school could continue for three more years before it would be considered a candidate to be closed. So, such a poor school could operate for eight years with horrible performance. If in even one of those three years it could rise to mediocre status, it would be given another three years to operate. 

Even then, after three years of substandard operation, the school could be allowed to operate under probationary status. And remember, the members of the Commission who oversee approvals, closures, and revocations of charters would all be required to be strong advocates and proponents of charter schools. Automatic closure? Not really. This proposal has loopholes large enough to fly a jumbo jet through.

The final nail in the Kentucky charter school coffin is fraud and abuse. 

Charter schools are particularly prone to corruption because, in the case of small charters, only one or two people often handle the finances and records, making it easy to produce fraudulent student-performance reports or to participate in shady financial deals of funneling money to friends or relatives. The corporations in it for profits have a strong incentive to cook the books.  

While the proposed charter-school law in Kentucky would require annual audits of charter schools, those audits would not be able to identify friends and relatives on the payroll, complex real estate deals or many other types of fraud. Even if the fraud is detected, the millions of dollars stolen by the charter-school operator are long gone and cannot be recovered. So we could not depend upon annual audits to be much of a deterrent to fraud.  

What follows is a short sampling of reported instances of charter school fraud and abuse. But to see much, much more, go to the scandals database which contains more than 800 such reports and investigations. What is frightening is how many instances of undetected fraud currently occur. 

The News-Herald (Northeastern Ohio), Aug. 11, 2013: Ten people from 13 companies were indicted on multiple charges relating to the operation of a Cleveland charter high school.

WCPO TV (Cincinnati), April 5, 2013: Two members of a Cincinnati charter school were scheduled to appear in court after they allegedly stole more than $148,000 in taxpayer dollars 

WRTV (Indianapolis), March 17, 2011: The co-founder of an Indianapolis charter school faced allegations that he defrauded schools and small business owners out of thousands of dollars. 

Indianapolis Mayor’s Office press release, Oct. 21, 2005: Student transcripts show that many students who received diplomas did not meet the graduation requirements set out in the school’s charter or Indiana law.

Houston Chronicle, April 18, 2005: Three relatives pleaded guilty to swindling at least $5 million from state and federal governments by inflating enrollment figures and the number of free lunches served at the now-defunct Prepared Table Charter School.

KTNV (Las Vegas), Apr 9, 2013: Renaissance Academy charter-school operator Roy Harden is facing charges that he defrauded the state and stole $1.3 million tax dollars under the guise of education.

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), Feb. 15, 2013: The head of Lion of Judah Academy charter school was indicted for illegally funneling $1.2 million of public funds into “a business he formed to run the school.”

Associated Press, March 27, 2013: The former chief financial officer of a foundation that funds charter schools in Albany admitted embezzling almost $203,000 from the organization. 

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Sept. 6, 2006: The former top administrator at a defunct downtown Minneapolis charter school was charged with seven felony counts of misusing more than $300,000 in public money.

KTVU (Oakland), Jan. 10, 2012: A former Santa Rosa charter-school official pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $400,000.

So in summary, there are only a few things you need to know to reject charter schools for Kentucky:

  • The vast majority of charter schools are no better than public schools.
  • Since they are no better, it does not make sense to weaken our public schools by siphoning off public school funds for charters. In Ohio, for example, in 2013, more than $800 million was hijacked from the public schools to fund 350 charter schools at an average of more than $2 million each.
  • Because fraud and abuse are endemic in charter schools – even though audits are performed – it’s not worth taking a chance on them.
  • No matter what a charter school law would establish in Kentucky, once the camel gets its nose under the tent, it becomes easy to modify and update that legislation. For example, in Ohio, the public schools are now required to transport charter children to school, which costs the public schools millions of additional dollars.

While Kentucky is behind the rest of the nation in many things, it is way ahead in rejecting charter schools.

Closing Statement: Dr. Lewis 

Dr. Solomon and I could go back and forth endlessly debating what a charter in another state did or didn’t do. Such an endless debate would only continue to give cover to political opponents of large-scale public education reform for their unwillingness to take on a traditional public schooling establishment that has failed to provide an adequate education for so many children in Kentucky. 

The time for the debate is over. Kentuckians are smart people; we can read and research for ourselves and arrive at our own conclusions based on facts and reasoning, not propaganda. Rather than continued debate, I believe it is now time for decision.

This conversation about the adoption of charter school legislation Kentucky is fundamentally about parental choice. It’s simply about whether we will adopt legislation to allow for the creation of public schools of choice that operate independently of local school districts but are held accountable by the state for their performance. 

I believe Kentucky should adopt a strong charter school law because there are so many children in this commonwealth who have not been served well by traditional public schools. I know that charter schools would provide the public-school options that parents and students in our state desperately want and deserve. 

In some cases, the children not served well have been poor. In some cases, they have been students with special needs. In some cases, they have been students of color. In some cases, they have been students who are gifted and talented. In some cases, they have been students with learning styles that don’t align with the instructional approach used at their traditional public school. And in some cases, they have been students whose traditional public school is incapable of preparing them for pursuing their specific scholastic, artistic or career goals. 

Adopting charter school legislation in Kentucky would allow for the creation of public schools of choice, alternatives to traditional public schools that would be options for parents of children who – for whatever reason – are not being served well by the traditional public school district.

As I have said throughout this debate, the reality is that charter schools in Kentucky would be whatever legislation in Kentucky defines them to be. They would operate however legislation in Kentucky says they are to operate. So, if the debate was truly about specific provisions of a charter school bill, opponents of the bill would come to the table and say “let’s craft the best charter school legislation we can for Kentucky.” 

But opponents of charter school legislation won’t come to the table because they don’t want to openly talk about provisions of the proposed law that really bother them. Opponents of charter school legislation in Kentucky, led by the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) and the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) don’t want to openly talk about the core issues we disagree on. 

The truth is, JCTA’s collective bargaining agreement with Jefferson County Public Schools limits principals’ ability to select, evaluate, develop, and if need be, terminate staff. Charter schools in Jefferson County would not be bound by that agreement. JCTA doesn’t like that. 

Also, with the creation of high quality public charter schools in the state, traditional public school districts that have failed to educate entire groups of students for generations would now have to compete to keep those students and the state tax dollars that pay for their education. Those districts haven’t had to fight to keep those students because the local school district has been the only show in town. Those school districts don’t want parents to have high quality public charter schools in their districts because they don’t want to compete with them for students and for dollars.

Let me assure anyone who is interested that I’m not in this fight for myself. I stand to personally benefit in no way whatsoever by the passage of charter school legislation. If fact, given my line of work, my support for increased parental choice in public education makes my life more difficult. But I am resolute in my advocacy for choice because it is the right thing to do for children in Kentucky. 

When my little Kentuckian is ready for school, I am confident she will attend a school that meets her learning needs. My confidence is based on the fact that my wife and I purchased a home in a neighborhood where we are comfortable with the traditional public school she will attend. In fact, my wife works in the school district as a school counselor. 

But let’s just say, for argument sake, that between now and then, that school takes a turn for the worst, or maybe once she gets into school, my wife and I realize she just needs something different than what’s offered at her traditional public school; I would still have options. We might use our social and professional networks to get her into another school in the district. Or, I could move within the district or to another district so that she would attend a school that better meets her needs. If neither of those were viable options, I would as a last resort enroll her in a private or parochial school that meets her needs. But many of those options are not available to most Kentuckians, who find that their child’s school is not meeting her needs. 

What I want is for every parent in Kentucky to have high-quality public school options to choose from, regardless of their income, what they do for a living or where they live. I find it highly problematic that so many parents in our state have no options other than keeping their children in schools that they know fail to meet their needs.

And honestly, I find it sad that the very people – leaders – who fight so hard to keep parents from having high quality public school options in Kentucky are parents who, like me, already enjoy the privilege of school choice.

If this debate is truly about what accountability and legal and financial concerns, as Dr. Solomon’s arguments would suggest, then current opponents of charter school reform should come to the table to help write what could be the strongest charter school law in the nation. But if the debate is about the traditional public school establishment protecting its turf and funding, as I believe it is, then the two sides will never agree. 

Kentuckians must decide whether they will allow the KEA, JCTA and the legislators they fund to continue protecting the turf and funding of the traditional public schooling establishment and teachers’ unions – even at the expense of Kentucky’s most vulnerable children.

Closing statement: Dr. Solomon 

Ever since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration published the report, “A Nation at Risk,” free-market proponents have been desperately attempting to create the false impression that American public schools are failing our nation. This stereotypical rant comes from University of Arkansas Professor Jay Greene, who many believe to be profoundly biased and one of the most committed advocates of the destruction of the American public school system: “How can we fix our floundering public schools?”

These people start with the assumption that our public schools are broken and that charter schools are the fix. But this conclusion is fatally flawed and badly in error. 

A variety of books and scholars soundly show how far this idea is off-base. David Berliner, former dean of the University of Arizona School of Education calls it “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools”; former Bush administration official Diane Ravitch refers to it as the “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools”; and University of Illinois professors Chris and Sarah Lubienski explain “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.”

As books like these point out, our public schools are excellent in almost every respect. But when compared with schools in other nations, they do not come out on top. In some cases, they even score at or below the middle. Detractors claim that the fact that something is rotten in America’s public schools since they are not at or near the very top when compared to those in other nations. This propaganda about public schools has created a paranoid rush to judgment nationally in which 42 states have now adopted charter schools to fend off the ugly monster at the door without first looking at the real facts.  

Of course this paranoia has been fanned by President Reagan, both Bush presidencies and the Obama administration. What’s so sad is that truly intelligent people try to solve a problem without first defining it. 

The root cause of our public schools not topping most of the other nations is poverty. Reformers almost always blame teachers and can therefore claim that new schools are the answer, without ever examining carefully such assumptions – including the effects of poverty on poor academic performance as opposed to poor teaching.

The United States has the second-highest child poverty rate in the developed world, trailing only Mexico. Education prognosticators miss the fact that most children from poverty start school far behind middle-class kids and can never catch up. In virtually every school district, children from poverty will, on average, score below middle-class kids.

But this is not rocket science. Middle-class children generally start school knowing letters, numbers, can read a bit and can even perform rudimentary arithmetic. But those from poverty very often can do none of this. Most charter schools teach classes about the same way as public schools but with fewer resources, and therefore more often with academic results that are no better or even worse.

Since they start so far behind, children from poverty need a more intense educational experience. The most successful approach yet found is to give them that extra time and require extra effort. 

A few charter schools attempt to remedy this by operating 9.5 hours per day, with Saturday and summer classes while demanding two hours of homework is done each night. Unfortunately, very few charters provide such expanded support because it’s too costly. This is a real challenge, since a growing number of charter schools are being operated by for-profit companies that are simply in it for the money, not for the children.

So rushing to solve this problem of kids from poverty by starting charter schools has proven to be a colossal failure. The best estimate to date from Stanford University’s latest study is that 71 percent of charter schools are either inferior to or no better than public schools. On the 2011 Nation’s Report Card, the NAEP proficiency levels, public schools outperformed charters in math and reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. What people thought was a cure turns out to instead be a curse.  

One curse is that the money to operate charter schools is extracted from public schools. When this money is taken away, the costs for public schools remain at the same level even as the income drops. This then calls for cuts to support for students, which surely harms those schools.  

But the second curse – corruption – is just as bad. Corruption is rampant nationally regarding charter schools. Even with annual audits, these school operators can divert public money to private purposes and engage in fraudulent purchasing and real estate deals without easily being caught.  

Here is a very short sampling of charter school fraud:

According to a TV report, a new Ohio audit says school officials of the Lion of Judah Academy paid themselves a half-million dollars by giving contracts to their own businesses. The downtown CASTLE misspent $1.8 million. Ten people were indicted. Also, this school year, nearly 20 first-year Ohio charter schools shut down before this school year was even complete. These charter operators received public school money, shut the schools down and absconded with over $30 million while stranding the children who had enrolled in these 20 schools.

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz found significant issues at each of the 13 charter schools he investigated, including people profiteering from complex rental schemes. Elsewhere in Philadelphia, a federal probe has discovered that the CEO of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School rents the school’s property from Parents United, an organization which she also heads, making her both landlord and tenant. And in the Bronx, City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo directed $1.5 million toward building the South Bronx Charter School for International Culture. The school was headed by her nephew Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, who pleaded guilty to embezzling $115,000.   

For references to hundreds of other charter school scandals go to: http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com. And for a scathing report on the lack of regulation and existence of fraud in charter schools, go to: http://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/will-anyone-stop-charter-school-corruption

Don’t believe for a millisecond charter school proponents’ claim that problems inherent with charters can be addressed with the right law.

No matter what laws are written, they neither correct the damage that charters would do to public schools nor prevent the strong temptation for corruption.

When you realize that the vast majority of charter schools are worse – or no better – than public schools, why would anyone in their right mind want to weaken our public schools by hijacking their funding and reducing their effectiveness, especially in light of the massive amount of fraud involved in charter-school operations?  

Does anyone need to know more to slam the door on charter schools for Kentucky?   


Wayne Lewis, Ph.D., is a University of Kentucky education professor and chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association’s Board of Directors. He can be reached at wayne.lewis@uky.edu.

Martin Solomon, Ph.D., is a retired University of Kentucky professor of business and economics and can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com.

Comments

  1. MomofCharterChildren says:

    I would highly recommend Charter Schools in Kentucky. I have bee relocated in Kentucky for two years now and have two children in JCPS. It saddens me how my children have lost their respect, enthusiam, and love for education. My children academic level exceded JCPS and since they have been here, they are at a halt in school, learning things that they were taught two grades ago. I rally and yearn for Charter Schools because coming from up North, JCPS is way behind. My children were put in T.A.G, A.P, and Honors here in JCPS because Charter Schools taught them well. I say go for it and quit failing our children. I have only two years of JCPS.May you have mercy on our children. Enough is enough!

    • Richard Innes says:

      Thank you for your comment and information about how charter schools served your children well. I share your disappointment that the traditional public schools in Kentucky have not maintained the good start your children got before your move to the Bluegrass State. Perhaps together we will change that.

  2. Joel Adams says:

    At first read, I have to say that I am a bit shocked at the blatant and persistent misinformation from Dr Solomon (hereafter Dr S). I certainly don’t have the time or inclination to go at it line by line, but more than a few points deserve a response:

    1) While Dr Lewis did an excellent job of correcting the false history of charter schools presented by Dr S, it bears clarifying, since Dr S repeated his claim again and again, that neither Budde nor Shanker were radical free-marketeers. A UMass education professor and the head of a teacher’s union do not a right wing conspiracy make, yet that is what Dr S would have us believe. Chartering schools is an idea that came from the left, was embraced by much of the right, which then seems to have scared away some of the left, leaving a patchwork of support that includes Barack Obama, Jeb Bush, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Al Sharpton to name a few.

    2) Dr S continually makes the pitch that charter schools are private schools being funded with public money, but nothing could be further from the truth. As proposed in the KY law, charters’ books would be open to the authorizers and, via regular audit, the public. We can’t even get that in our current public schools! The scope of the similarities between traditional and chartered public schools is quite broad: they must abide by federal guidelines for public schools, they are subject to the same or greater transparency and open enrollment requirements, they are created subject to a public authorizer, they are held accountable and can be closed by that same public entity… private schools do none of these, and many public schools do less of these than charters.

    3) Dr S likes to talk of the private greedy charter school profiteers. So first, we go back to the state law issue. Some states have chosen to only allow non-profit charter schools, though there are some excellent schools that are for profit as well, and we shouldn’t sacrifice a good differentiated education for appearances (in my opinion–there are other ways to preserve the integrity of the school system, i.e. transparency throughout). But more importantly, let’s approach our own public school system with a bit more honesty. The only part that’s necessarily not for profit is the building. Food contracts, textbooks, supplies, furniture, etc. These are all enormous contracts for our school district, and they are all for profit. There is no school system anywhere where someone’s profits don’t play a role in decision-making. That’s the reality. But there’s nothing wrong with some profit, so long as there is accountability, and that is what the big district system sorely lacks. Charters answer that charge.

    4) Dr S likes to talk about how charters just pop up whenever an individual or corporation wants one. He seems to completely neglect the concept of the authorizer, which is, in many ways, the key organizational component to success. We want more than one (local school boards as the sole authorizer are apt to avoid anything that might make them look bad–don’t believe me? Just take a look at this entire issue, it’s mostly about fear of the loss of control), but we don’t want so many that schools can just shop around until they find someone that will accept their charter, as that just results in bad schools. 2-3 high quality authorizers create a dynamic environment for schools, and so long as they have the capacity to fulfill their mission, they provide the ongoing accountability that balances out the schools’ autonomy and makes the whole thing work.

    I want to address some of the studies as well, and I will, but no time now. Suffice it to say for the moment, that if you look at the stats from all these studies that compare apples to oranges and shove them all together as some of the studies Dr S references do, you can pretty much make them say whatever you want. But if you look at model states, or even aggregate studies that control for some of the bigger variables from state to state, you can find solid research that demonstrates without a doubt that charter schools done right have an immensely positive impact on students, especially those students least served by the traditional public school system.

    • Richard Innes says:

      Joel,

      Thank you for the thoughtful reply. You clearly took a considerable amount of time to research this important subject.

  3. Carl Wicklund says:

    So how do you explain the wasted tax dollars under investigation in Ohio and what is the lost learning impact of the wasted $ to those students and the others who will look out in public schools as a result of the $ lost.
    We continue to avoid this issue masking it in public ed. Issued.
    Get some people who care about the future and not the $ in charge before adding more sponges to such out the $ with no accountability.
    No we are masking the facts with special interest who are out to make money
    The facts would prove this if we get honest and clear the smoke.

    • Richard Innes says:

      Carl,

      Some states have much worse charter laws than others. What happened in Ohio isn’t necessary, and it isn’t happening in other charter states.

      Let’s put this shoe on the other foot. How do you explain the issues that the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts has found in the traditional public school system? We’ve got a superintendent headed to jail and another under indictment, and both did what they did for an extended period of time without the supposed safeguards in the traditional public school system detecting anything.

      It is sad that some people give into temptation in any school system. But, when charter school people misbehave, if the school is fundamentally unsound, it gets closed. How often has that happened to a traditional school with lousy performance?

      • There’s a certain aspect of echo chamber reading these comments. The problem with the charter school movement in Kentucky is that it starts to go underground when you start to ask them for specifics, and it doesn’t appreciate open questions on forums like Facebook.

        So here are my questions for Charter School supporters, including Hal Heiner, the Kentucky Charter Schools Association (or whatever they call themselves this week), and BAEO.

        1) What is your background in education? How much experience do you have and in what types of schools with what type of students?

        2) What problems (both inside and outside of education) currently exist that keep our children from learning or achieving to their potential in schools.

        3) What evidence do you have that replacing existing schools with an externally run charter school will fix this problem in a way that similar changes within the existing public school system cannot?

        4) How will you guarantee that charter schools create success for those among the worst performing children?

        5) How will charter schools fix the external factors (poverty, homelessness, poor homelife, etc.) that play a large factor in educational outcomes for most students?

        6) How will you ensure that charter schools don’t find ways of filtering out students who are underachieving, or otherwise skewing their populations to help secure more positive results than existing schools?

        7) How will you guarantee that achievement is measured honestly and we don’t see the widespread cheating we’ve seen in many “success” stories of school reform (see Flanner House, DC, etc.).

        8) If a school is closed, what guarantees will be in the law to ensure that students who are in the closed school get the transitional help they need to move to a better one?

        9) What are the financial/religious/political ties of Charter School advocates? How do they play into their support and their plans?

        10) Where do the charter school supporter’s children go to school? Where did they go to school?

        11) How do we guarantee that charter and traditional public schools are compared on equal footing to measure success?

        12) How do we guarantee that science and other educational standards are maintained and that charter schools aren’t an attempt to bring religious education into the systems?

        I’m all for better schools. I think that if we’re all being honest, we have to say charter schools are not a guarantee of anything, and simply experimenting for experiments sake might be fine for a product in the free market, but it’s not great when trying to educate a child over the case of 12 plus years.

        • Richard Innes says:

          These good questions deserve a better presentation than I can provide in a comment, so I am posting a new blog today August 26, 2014) that answers them.

  4. Dr. Lewis knocks it out of the park. The arguments from Dr. Solomon are ridiculous. It all comes down to accountability at the teacher level and the state unions don’t want that.

  5. Douglass Jones says:

    I wholeheartedly support the idea of “Choice” for our children, Charters are likely more viable in larger, metro areas than in rural areas where there are limited opportunities for duplication. In smaller rural districts, mergers of smaller, inefficient districts would seem to be the better option. The “union” objection to charters is directed to their ability to save the jobs of bad teachers. The recent failure at Myers Middle School in Louisville is a testament to the in adequacy of choice in Louisville. The school was so bad, they closed the school and distributed the students to 10 other area schools. The sub par teachers were just transferrd to new schools where they could continue to “infect” students with their poor quality teaching. A compromise to the current law, HR 85 would be to agree to make all charters true public schools, but, with new reules and regulations that would insure that the school staff could eliminate poor teachers from the staff and replace with higher quality teachers. The charter would still be subject to the same accountability rules. Only, the leadership at the school would be more in control. If it fails it closes.

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