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New House bill would fund charter schools in Kentucky

School choice pendant in school building.
Liz Schlemmer
School choice pendant in school building.

A bill filed Tuesday in the Kentucky General Assembly would fund charter schools and allow them to get off the ground, five years after lawmakers first made charter schools legal.

Charter schools are privately run schools funded with taxpayer dollars. They operate under fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Advocates say they provide an alternative for public school students and allow for educational experimentation.

Opponents say charter schools skim off students and funding from cash-strapped public schools, and that the lack of regulation makes them less accountable to the public.

Research on charters is mixed, with some studies showing improvements in standardized test scores, and others showing no impact.

House Bill 9, sponsored by Bardstown Republican Rep. Chad McCoy, would require school districts to fund charter schools within their boundaries on a per-student basis. State, local and federal funds that would normally follow a student to a traditional public school, would instead be sent to the charter school the student attends.

The bill also expands the kinds of charter “authorizers:” regulatory bodies with the power to approve applications from groups who want to open charter schools. Authorizers also have the power to close charter schools or decline to renew contracts, which are usually time-limited.

The 2017 charter school law allows school districts and mayors to authorize charter schools. McCoy’s measure adds Kentucky’s accredited public and private universities to the list, the Kentucky Board of Education, state-approved non-profit organizations and a new body the bill would create called the Kentucky Public Charter School Commission.

The Kentucky Public Charter School Commission would be a seven-person board, with members selected by the governor. Each member would serve two-year terms. The measure requires the members to have experience in either management and finance, education or public or nonprofit governance. No more than three members can be of the same political party.

The commission and other authorizers would be entitled to a 3% cut of a charter school’s per-pupil funds as an “authorizer fee.”

The bill would exempt certain charter schools from providing benefits to employees. 

The measure requires the state to provide charter school employees the same health and retirement benefits as employees of traditional public schools. However, under the bill, employees of “education service providers” would not be considered charter school employees. “Education service providers” are also called education management organizations (EMOs), or charter management organizations (CMOs). They are companies, either for-profit or nonprofit, who are contracted by the boards of charter schools to run them. 

Charter schools have been legal in Kentucky since 2017, but they never got off the ground because the funding mechanism lawmakers created that year expired in June 2018.

The new proposed funding mechanism would bring charter schools a large step closer to reality in Kentucky. It’s likely to face opposition from most Democrats who worry about the diversion of funds from public schools, and the lack of oversight. Many rural Republicans have historically been opposed to charter schools over concerns they would take students, funding and employees away from rural public schools that are already grappling with population decline.

In an apparent nod toward those concerns, McCoy’s measure requires charters in school districts with 5,000 students or fewer to get an endorsement from the local school district.

The measure would go into effect in the 2022-2023 school year.

McCoy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.