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Kentucky Republicans Renew Push For Charter Schools

School hallway
Eleanor Hasken
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Sarah Yost prepares her classroom for her new students at Wesport Middle School, in Louisville, Ky., on Friday, August 8, 2014. Photo by Eleanor Hasken

Kentucky lawmakers were predictably divided along party lines Monday during a committee hearing on charter schools, signaling that the Republican initiative might continue to languish in the state legislature.

The Republican-majority state Senate has approved a bill that would authorize charter schools every year since 2010. But that has been largely ignored by the Democratic House.

Rep. Jim DeCesare, a Bowling Green Republican, said House majority leadership has been unwilling to take up the issue.

“We can’t get hearings on some of these pieces of legislation or get them to the House floor for a vote,” said DeCesare, the House minority whip.

Kentucky is one of eight states that doesn’t allow charter schools.

On Monday, lawmakers heard testimony on a proposal to send state education funding directly to the families of students who opt out of the conventional public school system.

“If your kid doesn’t go to a public school, you still pay the money. And you should have the opportunity to say where some of that money goes," DeCesare said.

The proposal was modeled after an Arizona law. The families of students who opted out of a conventional school would get 90 percent of the state dollars that would have gone to the public school system to educate that child. The funds would be put on a debit card that could be used only for educational services such as private school tuition, home school curricula, tutoring or special education.

Vicki Alger, a research fellow with the conservative think tank Independent Institute, said the “doomsday scenarios” about charter schools offered by critics are unwarranted. Under the Arizona-style model, conventional public schools would lose some funding when students left — but they'd also shed the cost of educating the child.

“What actually happens is their per-pupil funding goes up” because the conventional school would still get 10 percent of the state funding, plus local and federal dollars, Alger said.

Several Republican representatives said the alternative funding model would give particular flexibility to parents with special-needs children.

Rep. John Carney, a Campbellsville Republican, said lawmakers need to look past the partisan divide on the issue.

“We all know the makeup here, we know the issue and how charter schools are going to go for sometime, but I would beg this General Assembly to at least consider this issue with special-needs students,” Carney said.

Rep. Linda Belcher, a Shepherdsville Democrat, said the cost of educating a special-needs child far exceeds the amount a family would receive from the diverted formula funding.

“What happens when the money card runs out?” Belcher said, adding that public school districts are better able to fund and provide those services. "Our children are getting those services, and parents are not having to pay for them and not having to mortgage houses.”

Lawmakers also heard a presentation on a scheme that would provide a tax credit for donors to nonprofits that grant private school scholarships to low-income students.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, a Lexington Democrat, criticized the policy, saying that the tax credit would “have the effect of reducing government revenue for public schools.”

Republican candidate for governor Matt Bevin supports legislation to authorize charter schools in Kentucky, while Democratic candidate Jack Conway says he’s for more flexibility in the public school system. Conway says he would only support a system that doesn’t “siphon away public dollars.” Independent candidate Drew Curtis says he’s open to the concept of charter schools, especially if they would help low-income students.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.