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Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell Join Push for Kentucky Charter Schools

A new push for Kentucky to have charter schools launched on Thursday with political leaders proclaiming their affinity for that particular type of school choice.Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell sat on a panel with leaders from the national charter school advocates and others. The discussion was hosted by the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, which was recently created and is led by former Louisville mayoral candidate Hal Heiner.Charter schools are typically state-funded institutions operated outside of the local public school system and without many public education regulations.  Advocates argue that the greater flexibility leads to innovation and can improve student achievement. Critics argue that charter schools haven’t been proven more successful than public schools and that they divert funds away from local school systems. The advocates argued chiefly that charter schools would give parents more choices. “I’m for school choice," Paul said. "I’m for charter schools; I’m for choice. I don’t care where you go, whether it’s public, private, religious, non-religious. It’s your money, you should be able to take it where you want to take it. And I think competition will make us better.” Donna Hargens, superintendent for Jefferson County Public Schools, attended the panel but did not speak. Afterward, she said JCPS  already provides choices to parents and students through magnet schools. “We have choice in Jefferson County that some parents may not be aware of or haven’t taken advantage of," Hargens said. But Heiner says that top-achieving schools like Manual High School screen students. He says charter schools would select students through a lottery. “Public charter schools are the direct opposite of that, where all a parent has to do for their child to go into that tuition-free school is sign their name and they’re in," Heiner said.

Kentucky is one of eight states that don’t  allow for charter schools. Legislation allowing charter schools has been approved in the Republican-controlled state Senate during recent regular legislative sessions, but proposals have been consistently blocked in the Democratic-controlled House education committee.McConnell said charter schools have become a partisan issue in Kentucky.“How in the world regardless of party affiliation can we defend the status quo?" McConnell said. "If we are not for trying something like this, what are we for?”Nina Rees, chief executive for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Kentucky could benefit from being a late-comer.

"What’s unique and special now in Kentucky is that you can ride on the experiences that we have had in different states and build a law that takes from the best charter school laws around the country, and model your law after these pieces of legislation so you can get the innovation and the accountability piece right,” Rees said.After the panel discussion, Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said that Kentucky public schools already provide choices and that charters would divert funds from public schools systems. What would happen if Louisville had charter schools? Hargens' response: “What it would do is actually take money and actually give it to the charter schools—so we would write a check."Heiner said his new organization will have more forums on the charter issue in the future.In a side note, Heiner said recently that he's considering a run for governor in 2015. On Thursday, he said education ought to be a big issue in that campaign, whomever the candidates end up being.

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.