As I began working with school districts and teacher associations to develop support for the Kentucky Race to the Top (RTTT) application, I asked them to keep an open mind about charter schools. In most cases, my suggestion was well-received, and most people did keep open minds toward discussion of charter schools and the issues that need to be addressed.
It quickly became apparent to me that we did not have sufficient time to address the charter school issues AND develop a strong Race to the Top application. On December 7, I informed superintendents, teacher leaders and school board chairs that our RTTT application would not include charter schools.
As most of you know, we were able to pass legislation (House Bill 176) to include four turnaround options for low-performing schools, and among those options we did include the ability for a local school board to contract with an Education Management Organization to run a school. This option should help Kentucky with some of the criteria points in the RTTT application.
The question now becomes – What do we do now? The charter school debate has not ended, it has only just begun. My guiding principle with regard to charter schools or any innovation in education is simple. How will the innovation help students learn at higher levels and enable teachers to meet the needs of more students?
The debate moving forward should not be “do we have charter schools or do we not have charter schools.” We should never force ourselves into a corner of either/or. We should avoid the tyranny of OR and focus on the synergy of AND. There are some possible ways that charter school legislation could help improve teaching and learning in Kentucky. That is the solution we should all be looking for, rather than polarizing ourselves into one corner or the other.
The Kentucky Department of Education will be working with legislators and other decision-makers at the state and local levels to engage in a positive and focused discussion on how school boards could utilize some type of charter legislation to enable schools and districts to remove barriers to teaching and learning.
We should be focusing our questions on how a school board could utilize charter legislation to develop innovative programs that focus on mastery and student performance rather than seat time. We should focus the conversations on how school boards could partner with internal and external groups to utilize charter legislation to address the needs of students who are not achieving in traditional settings. We should focus the conversations on what innovations in technology could be utilized in a charter setting to create next-generation schools.
The common theme in all of these questions is the focus on improving teaching and learning with the support of local school boards. My favorite reminder when difficult issues come up is that we need to focus on the children’s needs and not let the adult needs get in the way of our focus. I have every confidence that Kentucky can have this discussion and, in the end, reach agreement on legislation that is in the best interest of the children.