Ensuring a strong public education system is top priority

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Stephen Pruitt

This month, I am sharing my thoughts about an issue that stirred up a lot of feelings and opinions on both sides of the political aisle during the 2017 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

House Bill 520, which was signed into law in March, gives local school boards and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville the authority to authorize charter schools. Nonprofits, parents, school administrators, teachers and public organizations will be able to apply to open a charter school, which is a public school that is run by a board of directors and is exempt from many state regulations. And although they are not required to by the new law, these charters may show an enrollment preference for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and those who attend persistently low-achieving noncharter public schools.

I’m no stranger to charter schools. I worked with them during my time with the Georgia Department of Education. And much like traditional public schools, I have seen charter schools that excel and those that struggle. That was much the same conclusion drawn by Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, when she spoke to the Kentucky Board of Education in November during a special study session on charter schools.

CREDO researchers have studied education reform and student outcomes for 18 years. What they have found is overall, charter schools best serve students in historically challenged communities, meaning students from racial minorities and those that come from low-income households. Those are the very students that frankly, Kentucky hasn’t done a good job with helping them reach their potential.

A special Kentucky Department of Education research analysis, “A Focus on Equity for All,” examined student math performance between middle and high school from 2012 to 2016. It found that even students with the best grades are falling short in reaching Kentucky’s college-readiness standards in math.

Additionally, African American and low-income students have substantially lower chances of scoring proficient on state assessments or meeting the Council on Postsecondary Education’s math benchmark score of 19 on the ACT than their white or wealthier peers who earned the same average letter grade in math courses. Achieving that benchmark allows students to enter credit-bearing courses in college without taking remedial courses, for which they pay tuition, but do not earn credit.

Those results simply aren’t good enough for the children of this Commonwealth and we must find new ways to reach those students that are most at-risk. For some, the answer may be a high-quality charter school.

But when we talk about high-quality charter schools, it’s the “high-quality” part of it that really matters. We, as a state, have the opportunity to shape what is meant by quality. The Kentucky Board of Education will do its part by establishing regulations – in its usual open and transparent process – on how the law will be implemented. You will have a chance to look at those regulations before they are adopted and give us your feedback on what you think works and what doesn’t.

I encourage you to take part in this process, regardless of whether you are a supporter of charter schools or not. Having high-quality schools in Kentucky is of the utmost importance. A world-class education is the key to the future of Kentucky’s children and the Commonwealth.

So, what happens when a charter doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain in providing, as HB 520 says, “exceptional levels of results-driven accountability”? Charter schools are based upon a contract between the school and the authorizer. If the charter school isn’t serving its students well, we must be willing to hold that school accountable and not renew the contract.

Another thing we must look at while implementing HB 520 is funding. This issue can easily break down into an us vs. them mentality, and we must not forget that all of Kentucky’s public schools are entitled to equitable and adequate funding. Right now, we are falling short on both counts.

Since 2008, SEEK funding – the state funding formula for education – has increased slightly from $2.37 billion to $2.42 billion. According to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while most states have been restoring funding cuts made during the Great Recession, Kentucky was one of just 12 states that cut general funding per student during the 2015-16 fiscal year when adjusted for inflation. And according to the Quality Counts 2017 report published by the Education Week Research Center, Kentucky receives an A- for spending the money it has equitably among schools, but it rated an F overall in total school funding.

We, as a state, must do better.

I remain, as always, a strong supporter of public education and one of the state’s biggest cheerleaders for the 655,000 children who are educated in Kentucky’s public school classrooms each year. I do not expect to see public schools fail just because Kentucky will soon have charter schools, nor do I think educational outcomes will necessarily improve just because those charter schools exist.

It will take all of us, working together, to help improve education for all of the Commonwealth’s students. If you stand for what is best for the Commonwealth’s children, I’ll stand with you.

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