Too many holes in charter bill

The charter-school bill that generated six hours of emotional debate before clearing the House on Friday is chock-full of uncertainties and unanswered questions.

At the top of the list is how charter schools would be funded, a topic on which the House whiffed.

Problems were quickly identified in the proposed funding mechanism after House Bill 520 was introduced Feb. 17. In response, the sponsor simply stripped any mention of funding in the version that advanced through the House on March 3.

How, you may ask, can lawmakers even consider a bill allowing charter schools without spelling out how they would be funded or knowing the budget implications for local school districts. The answer is they can’t responsibly.

Another surprise, the mayors of Lexington and Louisville were added as authorizers of charter schools, which makes HB 520’s silence on funding even more of a problem. (The bill also appears to authorize the mayors of 80 small cities in Jefferson County to authorize charter schools.)

Mayors have no authority to direct a school board or the Kentucky Department of Education to transfer money to a charter school. So, how would these mayor-authorized schools be funded? It’s one of HB 520’s many mysteries.

With just five days remaining in this General Assembly, we have to agree with the Kentucky School Boards Association that HB 520 should not become law.

Likes us, the group that represents Kentucky’s 173 school districts kept an open mind on charter schools, waiting for the specifics.

But, as KSBA notes, HB 520 gives local school boards only token authority to decide whether to approve a charter school. The real authority rests with the state school board, which is appointed by the governor. The standards by which local and state boards would judge charter-school applications are far too ambiguous.

It’s unclear whether a charter proposal could be turned down because it would diminish the capacity of a school district to educate its students. And the bill says state board decisions would be appealed to a “district court of appeals,” which, FYI to whomever wrote this legislation, is not anything that exists in Kentucky.

A host of other concerns are yet to be addressed: HB 520 retains the tenure of teachers leaving public schools for charters, making it difficult or impossible to fill vacant teaching spots. The only funding aspect that’s addressed in HB 520 is transportation, but it’s unclear how existing transportation funds can be stretched to accommodate charter students. The bill would allow an unlimited number of charter schools and no doubt has other problems yet to be discovered.

Despite Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s repudiation of charter-school opponents as disgusting and liars, six Republicans in the House voted against HB 520. They diverged from their party line because the worries about HB 520 are troubling and real.

As has been pointed out many times, Kentucky is one of only seven states without charter schools. With so many examples to learn from, we should be able to avoid others’ mistakes.

At the very least, we should be able to draft a bill that is not full of uncertainties and unanswered questions.

Lexington Herald-Leader

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