LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Five years after the Kentucky General Assembly approved charter schools in the Commonwealth, the body is moving to fund them. House Bill 9 passed the House this week with just 51 votes and now moves to the Senate.
The bill creates a permanent, per-pupil funding mechanism for charter schools and requires at least two to open, one in Northern Kentucky and one in West Louisville.
Gov. Andy Beshear has said he will veto “any charter school bill” that makes it to his desk. But if the Senate passes House Bill 9 by March 30, the legislature will be able to override the veto with simple majorities in the House and Senate.
As lawmakers continue to act on the bill, here are answers to some common question about charter schools:
A charter school is a public school, meaning it does not charge tuition. However, it is operated independently from the local school district. Operators, which can be non-profit or for-profit companies, must apply to an authorizer to open a charter. In Kentucky, school boards and mayors can allow charter schools by reviewing applications and deciding if they want to grant a charter. House Bill 9 would also make the governing board of Northern Kentucky University an authorizer.
If approved, the operator and the authorizer will agree to a contract, or a “charter,” that sets forth the responsibilities and expectations for the school. Charter schools have more autonomy than regular public schools when it comes to setting curriculum, school day hours and terms of employment. As a result, charter schools sometimes orient themselves around specific subjects, such as STEM or the arts. Some charter schools also extend the school day or hold classes on weekends. And since they’re typically not bound by contracts with teacher’s unions, charter schools can more easily fire teachers than traditional public schools.
In exchange for that flexibility, which supporters say leads to better results, charter schools must meet certain quality benchmarks and can be shut down if they don’t. According to a 2020 study of all charter schools that opened between 1999 and 2017, more than a quarter were shut down five years after opening.
Charter schools require parents to apply for admission, unlike traditional public schools. If there are more applications for enrollment than spots available, Kentucky law dictates that the school hold a “randomized and transparent lottery.” The necessity to apply for entrance into charter schools has led to criticism that they “cherry pick” families by discouraging those who may not have the time, attention or ability to apply. This results in more highly engaged families attending charter schools, increasing the likelihood of student success.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have charter schools, and Kentucky is the only state where charters are legal but not funded.
Across the country, there are roughly 7,700 charter schools serving more than 3.4 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Among Kentucky’s neighbors, Ohio had the most charter schools in the 2019-2020 school year, with 317. Tennessee had 114, Indiana had 104 and West Virginia approved its first three charter schools last November.
California leads the nation with over 1,330 charter schools and Washington, D.C. has the highest proportion of students attending charter schools at nearly 48%.
This is perhaps the key question underlying the charter debate and the answer is unclear.
An oft-cited 2013 study from Stanford showed mixed results, with students in charters outperforming students at traditional public schools in math 29% of the time, scoring the same 40% of the time and scoring worse 31% of the time.
There is evidence that children in high-poverty, urban areas perform better at charter schools than at traditional public schools and evidence that charter schools are a financial drain on public school districts and that they’re less likely to enroll students with special needs.
In the New York Times last year, education researcher Dr. Eve L. Ewing summed up the debate like this: “After two generations of research, scholars have repeatedly asked, ‘Do charters work?’ and the answer is a resounding: ‘Sometimes! It depends!’”