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Black students benefit in charter-school states: When will Kentucky become one?

Editor’s Note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide.

Since starting this weekly column 14 years ago, I’ve been advancing the idea that parents rather than politicians, bureaucrats, zip codes or paycheck sizes should determine where children are educated.

In the process, opponents’ attempts to deny Kentucky parents alternatives for their children – even for public options like charter schools – have been, and continue to be, thoroughly debunked.

For instance, critics frequently claimed during earlier years of the public charter school movement that parents would neither understand nor be interested in educational alternatives.

However, famed Black economist Thomas Sowell in his recent book “Charter Schools and their Enemies” notes that enrollment in charters “is growing faster, especially in lower-income minority communities.”

Between 2001 and 2016, enrollment in charter schools rose 571% compared to only 1% in their traditional public counterparts, Sowell reports.

Add the more recent and wonderful re-engagement of parents in their children’s education resulting from Covid’s ravages, and the appetite for school choice is clearly growing.

Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes, in a blog post series recently, confuted yet again the frequent – and frequently repudiated – claim by critics that charter schools don’t make a significant difference academically, especially for minorities.

Innes found that Black students are positively affected academically in states which empower parents with educational alternatives while Kentucky, which offers few options, leaves these children behind.

When Minnesota opened the nation’s first charter school in 1992, its Black fourth- and eighth-graders scored lower than Kentucky’s Blacks in both reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Now, 168 charter schools with 63,000 students later, North Star State Blacks across the board had higher rates of progress than Kentucky’s, including a dramatic improvement in fourth-grade reading – rising by 12 scale points on the NAEP scale between 1992 and 2019, compared to the Bluegrass State’s increase of only 3 points.

Innes charts how the progress of Kentucky’s Blacks trails virtually every state where at least 5% of all students are enrolled in charter schools in most NAEP reading and math assessments.

Opponents also mischaracterize charter students’ socioeconomic status, claiming the reason they’re outperforming their public counterparts is because charters really are private schools which cherry pick the best and wealthiest kids from traditional public schools.

However, none of the nation’s 45 charter school laws allow such cherry picking.

Besides, the data suggest just the opposite: charter school students are more likely to be from homes which are not wealthy.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 35% of public charter students in 2018 attended high-poverty schools – where more than 75% of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches – compared to only 24% of their traditional public school peers. Only 18% of charter school students attend low-poverty schools, where 25% or less of children qualify for the lunch rates.

While Kentucky doesn’t currently have any charters, it does have many high-poverty schools, some of which demonstrate that even students from low-income homes can – with the right educational opportunities – rise academically.

As a case in point, after teachers got special training on reading instruction, reading proficiency rates improved in all but one of Clay County’s seven elementary schools between 2012 and 2019 – including at Goose Rock Elementary, where third graders’ reading proficiency rates on state tests rose from barely 23% in 2021 to nearly 90% in 2019 – despite 85% of its students coming from poor homes.

Clay County’s experience creates hope that legislation passed recently by the Kentucky House will produce similar improvement in reading statewide.

Here’s also hoping that the legislature will take the steps needed to finally make charter schools a reality, replicating in Kentucky the kind of success we’re seeing in a growing number of states nationwide where school choice is already a given.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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