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Bluegrass Institute Launches 'Free to Learn' Debate Series

The watchdog group Bluegrass Institute is hosting a "Free to Learn" debate series across the Kentucky regarding the lack of charter schools.The first debate will be held 6 p.m. Tuesday at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, with others planned for Lexington and Frankfort next month.Kentucky is one of eight states without a law allowing charter schools, and attempts to pass such a bill have consistently hit a blockade in the Democratic-controlled House.Last week, a so-called "equity scorecard" released by Jefferson County Public Schools found an achievement gap in reading scores and a racial disparities in disciplinary action. Charter school proponents argue those persistent achievement gaps are reason enough for parents to give more options.Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute. He says the conservative think tank's public forums will feature panelists from both sides of the debate, and residents can make up their own minds. "We’ve been promoting this idea from the beginning that parents, and not zip codes or school bureaucrats or the size of a paycheck, should determine if a child gets a great education," he says.Earlier this year, a poll conducted by RunSwitch PR showed the vast majority of Kentuckians support charter school legislation. But the JCPS board officially opposes what it describes as the use of taxpayer dollars to finance charter schools or to "support programs that fund non-public schools, such as vouchers or tuition tax credits.""JCPS offers more school choice than most districts in the country," says JCPS spokesman Ben Jackey. "Between magnet schools, magnet programs, optional programs, professional career themes, multiple neighborhood cluster choices at the elementary level and network choices at the high school level, parents have many choices."The forum will feature University of Kentucky professor Wayne Lewis, who chairs the Department of Educational Leadership Studies, and Craig Meredith, Ph.D., who is a recently retired superintendent of Triad Local Schools in Ohio.Waters says these public discussions are important to have, but he notes that local opponents of charter schools have turned down various offers to attend any debate."We will debate anybody and they can pick the place, time, moderator and the format. And we’ll pay for it," he says. "But we’ve never been taken up on that and that’s kind of interesting to me because if you’re solid in your position and you really believe this is a bad idea for Kentucky then why wouldn’t you want to defend that position publicly."