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Charter Schools May Be Coming To Kentucky, But Funding Is Still In Limbo

Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons
Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons
Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons

Last year, the Kentucky General Assembly passed two bills relating to charter schools. One of the bills allowed charters to operate. The other one set up a funding mechanism. But that funding bill was only temporary, and is set to expire at the end of June.

So in the final days of this year's session, as lawmakers tackle other big issues like pensions and the state budget, they’re also taking steps to fund charter schools long-term. But, spoiler alert, even if the current measure doesn't end up becoming law, charters could still be opening in Kentucky as soon as the 2019-2020 school year.

Here's what's going on.

Last week, the state Senate approved its version of House Bill 366 and included in it language restoring funding for charter schools — language not included in the House version of the bill.

"They’ve had over a year to work on it and refine it," said Pam Thomas, senior fellow at the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Despite that, the language lawmakers are considering this time around is pretty much identical to the bill establishing a temporary charter funding mechanism that expires in June.

"Public schools are already grossly underfunded and adding this on top of this further diverts resources from the public schools," Thomas said.

So, what exactly is a charter school?

Charter school arepublicly-funded schools that are run independently. Charter schools are public schools. They’re free to attend and aren't religious.

And how those charters will be funded is what lawmakers are debating now.

"The details are pretty complex it appears but the gist would be that anywhere a charter school is authorized and approved that that local district where it’s located will be required to transfer some various amounts of funding over to the charter," said Eric Kennedy. He's the Director of Governmental Relations at the Kentucky School Boards Association.

And even though we still don’t know what that amount will be, Kennedy says those wishing to open charters in Kentucky can still begin applying. That's because that bill that lawmakers passed in 2017 is still on the books.

"Because the other law that passed last year authorizes them to exist and sort of says the authorizer can sort of negotiate funding terms, it's still possible and likely that we can see charter schools in Kentucky," Kennedy said.

Why Does Funding Matter?

Ultimately, how and whether the Kentucky General Assembly acts to put some sort of permanent charter funding mechanism into place may not matter when it comes to establishing some charters in Kentucky.

JCPS and other local school districts may not need permanent statutory language on the books when it comes to funding charters. If they want charters, they can authorize them to operate on their own because they have the money and they can transfer funds to a charter school.

In Jefferson County, director of school choice Cassiopia Blausey says JCPS will start taking applications next month for the 2019-2020 school year.

"The reason JCPS pretty much has to go forward is because House Bill 520 is still on the books," says Blausey.

But some speculate the uncertainty of future funding might deter larger national charters from opening in Kentucky.

Also, Thomas of the Kentucky Center on Economic Policy says there are larger questions to be asked about distributing money to charters through this sort of funding mechanism.

"The other problem is that if they’re going to say charter schools are public schools, then there is some obligation on their part to fund them equitably," she said.

Like how, for example, charter schools wouldn’t receive capital money to build a school, the way a traditional school would.

And even if House Bill 366 becomes law with the charter funding mechanism included, Thomas says there are other issues that remain unaddressed — like how mayors in Louisville and Lexington can fund charters.

The bill is now in conference committee, and the legislature will adjourn on April 13.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.