Thursday, March 17, 2016

Amended charter school bill passes Senate

A perennial state Senate bill to allow for charter schools gained additional traction today when it was amended to give local school boards a say in the matter.

The Senate voted 28-9 to pass Senate Bill 253, which would create a pilot program to allow charter schools in Fayette and Jefferson counties.

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, who introduced the bill, said the measure is an attempt to close the achievement gap – the persistent disparity of educational measures between students with different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Under SB 253, the charter schools would be part of the state’s system of public education, but the schools would be exempt from some laws and regulations applicable to public school systems. Wilson said the charter schools would be tuition free, nonprofit and have no religious affiliation. In addition, the charter schools would have to be committed to “at-risk” students and located in areas where those students reside.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, successfully introduced an amendment to allow “local control.” The amendment would let locally-elected school boards authorize charter schools.

“I think we have to recognize that we have to be innovative and creative when it comes to trying to adjust the achievement gap,” Thomas said. “We have had an achievement gap in Fayette County far too long.”

Wilson said Thomas’ amendment was a compromise he was willing to make if it improved the chances of SB 253 becoming law.

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, rose in support of SB 253 as amended.

“Without question there are a couple of our school districts that year after year after year have failing schools,” he said. “Until we intervene to give these students a chance – the opportunity to succeed – then we are failing those kids.’

Carroll added that the charter schools would still be staffed by certified teachers.

“I don’t understand all the opposition … with some teachers I’ve heard from,” he said. “This is about those students. This is about giving those students an equal opportunity to succeed.”

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray S. Jones II, D-Pikeville, voted against SB 253.

“The only problem I have with the concept of charter schools is, that in my opinion, we are not adequately funding the schools we have,” he said. “When you start talking about creating a whole new school, you are talking about facilities, you are talking about teachers.”

Jones added that charter schools would siphon much-needed resources from existing public schools.

Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, also voted against the measure. He said as Eastern Kentucky families move away in search of jobs outside of the coal mines, less children are in the public schools which receive funding, in part, based on the number of students enrolled.

“Our schools are struggling right now to keep their doors open,” Smith said. “This bill could be seen by them as if we are giving up on them.”

SB 253 now goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration.