As a local superintendent in North Carolina, I was never a big fan of charter schools. I always felt that the charter law in North Carolina did not provide local control and did not focus enough on providing opportunities for children who were not achieving academically. Also, the charter school law in North Carolina has proven to resegregate schools, and in many cases, the more wealthy parents created charter schools that seemed to be exclusive.
However, over the years I have visited many outstanding charter schools across the nation, and I know that programs like Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy can close achievement gaps. So, as I came to Kentucky, I remained open about charter schools and have always supported parental choice of schools and programs based on the best interests of children.
Then, the Race to the Top (RTTT) guidelines were introduced, and the charter issue was placed front and center. Since I had been in Kentucky only a few months, it quickly became clear that I could either get superintendent and teacher support, or I might be able to get charter legislation; however, I could not get both.
In December, I met with teachers, school board members and superintendents and made the commitment that our Race to the Top application would not include charter school legislation. We promised to make our best case that school-based decision making (SBDM) councils provided everything that charter schools had and even more.
We did make a strong case on this and other components of the RTTT application. The Kentucky application was very strong -- we placed 9th overall in the scoring. However, when we analyzed the results, we were the only state to receive ZERO points for charter schools. The scorers were very clear that we must have charter school legislation to receive any points in this area. If we had scored the points in this area (32), we would have been the 2nd-highest-rated state and possibly been a first-round recipient.
So, the charter legislation is back on the table. As promised to school board members, teacher organizations and superintendents, the only way I could support charters is with these criteria:
Local boards would serve as the sole authorizing agent.
Teachers do not lose any personnel and collective bargaining rights, if relevant.
Charter schools must first and foremost address closing achievement gaps and meeting needs of children who are not achieving academically.
The Senate passed the legislation along party lines this week. If we had been able to discuss and meet individually with senators, I believe we could have achieved bipartisan support as we did with House Bill 176; however, the end of the session is very hectic, and there is not much time for debate and review.
Now, on to the House, and eventually a conference committee will meet to make the final decision on charter school legislation. My biggest concern will be the loss of superintendent, school board and teacher support for our Race to the Top application. I hope everyone will read the final version of the charter bill and find a very reasonable and practical approach to charters that will provide local boards and superintendents with full control. Also, I hope that educators and community members also will see the tremendous potential for innovation.
Charter schools that focus on dropouts, achievement gaps, early college, virtual learning and other possible innovations to help children achieve at higher levels will be possible. Of course, all of these are currently possible with SBDM councils and creative superintendents.
We are back to the main reason why we need charter legislation – hopefully, to help encourage creativity so more children will be successful. Also, charter legislation represents our best hope to obtain the points we need to receive up to $175 million in federal funds to implement many of the innovations that we hope to see. I wish there were easy answers, but, as with so many things, there are no easy answers.