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NKU Board of Regents declines to open charter school

A large concrete campus building in the background on a sloping hill. Lake in the foreground.
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The university board’s decision means the mandate to open a northern Kentucky charter school falls to a “collective” of school board members in Kenton and Campbell counties.

The Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents has declined an invitation from state lawmakers to oversee the creation of a charter school under a new pilot program.

The board had until Jan. 1, 2023 to notify the state if they would accept an invitation from the GOP-led General Assembly to become a charter school “authorizer” and open one of two charter school lawmakers have mandated for Kentucky under a law passed this spring.

Lawmakers mandated one charter school be approved in northern Kentucky, and another in Jefferson County. Charter schools are funded with public dollars but are run by private boards or organizations.

Advocates say charter schools give families more options, and promote education innovation.

Opponents say they drain students and funds away from struggling public schools.

Charter “authorizers” are the bodies that sanction private groups to open charter schools and monitor their academic and financial performance.

At the NKU Board of Regents’ last meeting of the year Tuesday, no board member was willing to move forward on a resolution to take on the authorizer role.

“While I believe there are those on our board who would generally support our role as authorizer and those on our board who would vote against it, there is clear consensus – as evidenced by the board’s lack of action – that the option offered to us, as defined in House Bill 9, is not workable,” NKU Board of Regents’ chair Rich Boehne is quoted as saying in a press release from the university.

According to the release, concerns cited by NKU board members included a lack of funding, the “aggressive” timeline to open the school and concerns about potential legal challenges.

Some local and state leaders, including Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, have said Kentucky’s new charter school law is unconstitutional, because it requires school districts to send taxpayer dollars to private entities within their borders. However, no lawsuits have yet been filed.

The university board’s decision means the mandate to open a northern Kentucky charter school falls to a “collective” of school board members in Kenton and Campbell counties. Under the pilot program, each of the nine school boards in those counties will select two members to serve on the collective.

Erlanger Republican Rep. Adam Koenig, who cosponsored the legislation, told LPM News he’s not concerned about the NKU board’s lack of interest in authorizing the Northern Kentucky charter school.

“The important thing is that it [the law] requires someone to do it,” Koenig said. “I think Kentuckians deserve the opportunity to see how we can make it work in Kentucky.”

However, Gary Houchens, a longtime charter school advocate, says shifting the responsibility to school districts to authorize charters “puts them in a really bad situation.” The Western Kentucky University education professor said forcing school districts to authorize charters “against their will” creates a conflict of interest.

“They are being asked to be overseers and authorizers of schools that will ultimately compete with them for students,” Houchens said.

“It also creates an additional administrative burden for these districts to be overseers of schools they may wish didn’t exist in the first place…so I think this pilot project set up with the districts being the authorizers increases the possibility of failure for those pilot schools right out of the gate.”

Houchens said lawmakers need to “go back to the drawing board” and create more room for non-district authorizers, such as universities or a state-level charter school oversight commission, which is used by many other states.

The law gives the collective until July 1, 2024 to authorize a charter school in the region. The Jefferson County Board of Education is also bound by the pilot program to authorize a charter school by July 1, 2023.

The Jefferson County school board is taking charter school applications at this link. JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said the board has not yet received any applications.

In addition to the mandated pilot charters in northern Kentucky and JCPS, the charter law passed in April gives all school districts the option to become charter school authorizers, along with the mayors of Louisville and Lexington.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Supreme Court is still considering whether a different school privatization initiative is constitutional: the state’s controversial tax-credit scholarship program.

Justices have said they plan to rule by the end of the year whether the program, which sends would-be tax dollars to private schools, is legal.

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