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Charter schools may be coming to Kentucky soon, after Republicans override Beshear veto

The State Capitol in Frankfort houses the three branches of Kentucky's state government.
The State Capitol in Frankfort houses the three branches of Kentucky's state government.

Kentucky has a way to fund charter schools after Republicans in both chambers overrode Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of House Bill 9. The measure will require school districts to share funding with approved charter schools within their borders.

Charter schools are legal in most U.S. states. They are publicly funded K-12 schools, but are run by private groups instead of school districts. In Kentucky, those private groups are allowed to contract with for-profit “education management organizations” — companies that run the day-to-day operations of a school. Charter schools also have far fewer regulations around everything from hiring to budgeting to schedule. Supporters say that makes them more agile and likely to innovate.

Charter schools have been legal in Kentucky since 2017, but there aren’t any in the state because lawmakers didn’t set up a permanent way to fund them.

Speaking on the Senate floor in support of the bill, Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown called the measure “historic,” saying it would give children in “failing” schools “the opportunity to attend innovative schools unencumbered by bureaucratic regulation.”

But Louisville Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey pushed back.

“If it's a good thing to not have the rules and regulations that govern our public schools for charter schools, why do we have those rules and regulations on our public schools?” he asked.

Research is mixed on whether charter schools have a positive impact on students. Some studies show a boost to test scores, and others show little to no impact. Charter schools have also been shown to worsen racial and economic segregation.

In addition to a funding mechanism, the measure lawmakers passed mandates charter schools be started in Jefferson County and in northern Kentucky within the next two years.

That provision rankled Newport Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts.

“The families of District 67, and northern Kentucky more broadly, do not want to be part of this for-profit experiment. Colleagues, don't think that this will stop at Louisville and northern Kentucky. Don't think this won't affect your area,” she said.

Whitesburg Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton said the bill will hurt traditional public schools.

“All we're gonna have is money siphoned from our public schools, the only schools we have,” Hatton said. 

In the House, the measure passed by a slim margin, with 52 votes — one over the number needed to override Beshear’s veto, and one more than supporters had when the bill passed the House last month.

In the Senate, lawmakers passed the measure 22-15.

Many opponents, including Beshear, say the measure is unconstitutional because it requires school districts to share local funds with charter schools that the voters didn’t approve for the purpose.

Beshear and Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio say they believe groups are poised to sue the legislature over the new law.

Under the measure, “authorizers” who could approve charter schools are school districts, the mayors of Louisville and Lexington and the Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents. The bill also gives groups seeking charters the right to appeal to the state if an authorizer denies their application.

The legislation allows local authorizers to approve new charter schools starting in the 2022-23 school year.

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

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