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In Louisville, A Passionate Battle Over Charter Schools

Creative Commons

When Kentucky lawmakers return to Frankfort next week, they’ll likely take up charter school legislation.

In the meantime, WFPL istaking a look at the issue from various angles. In this installment of the weeklong series, we examine the debate over charters in Louisville — home to the state's largest public school district, Jefferson County Public Schools.

I spoke to people for and against charter schools, to hear their arguments and how they see the future of education in Louisville.

Listen in the audio player above.

The Argument Against

In a back room at the Highlands-Shelby Park library, Gay Adelman is setting up a projector screen and welcoming people as they filter in and take a seat.

The group has gathered to watch a documentary called "Education Inc." The movie highlights the financial interests backing charter school reform in cities across the country.

Adelman is a member of the anti-charter school coalition called Save Our Schools Kentucky. She’s a product of a public school education and the parent of a recent public school graduate.

Adelman is also the co-founder of a group called Dear JCPS, which pushes the local public school system to do better, to be more accountable and transparent.

"I love public school," says Adelman. "Just because we want change doesn’t mean we want to see it dismantled."

And, to some degree, that’s what Adelman is afraid will happen as it becomes likely state lawmakers will approve legislation enabling the creation of charter schools across the state.

She fears opening the gate to charters — which are publicly funded — will drain resources from existing public schools struggling with aging infrastructure and rising costs. And she says supporters are misguided in their praise for charters as a solution for low-performing students.

"Charters have proven to be a detour and a failed experiment, a diversionary tactic that already burst the bubble in many other states and creates a dual bureaucracy and opens the door for waste, fraud and abuse," Adelman says.

'There's nothing like having a choice'

Pastor Jerry Stephenson is in the kitchen of the Midwest Church of Christ on a recent weekday. He pours a cup of coffee heads up to his office on the second floor. In addition to being a pastor, he’s also a leader of the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition.

"We’re dedicated to bringing parental choice to low-income and minority children and their parents in West Louisville and throughout the commonwealth," he says.

Stephenson and the group are among the biggest advocates for charter schools in Louisville.

"We see the destruction that is taking place in our community with the violence and with the crime and the limited ability to have careers and employment opportunities," says Stephenson.

These problems are the result of a public education system that fails to reach the most vulnerable students, he says. To fix this, Stephenson says parents need more options — like charter schools.

"There’s nothing like having a choice in a matter; they have a choice where they can buy their food, they have a choice where they go to the movies and anything else, except where it comes to their children’s education," he says. "Well, that’s un-American and I think it’s criminal."

Stephenson scoffs at the anti-charter argument that funding would be directed away from public school systems.

"First of all, that money doesn’t belong to a system, it belongs to whoever is going to educate that child," he says.

Stephenson says accountability and transparency are key to ensuring charters in Louisville are successful. And he has concerns.

"Our major concern is that there are those going around promoting only JCPS and traditional public school systems should be the only one that authorizes charter schools," he says. "Hello? Why in the world would you put a fox in the hen house?"

Stephenson wants the authorization of charter schools to be left to colleges, universities and the state board of education. He says the success of charter schools will depend on the authorizing entity.

State lawmakers will reconvene next week to discuss that and other issues related to charters.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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