Sunday, March 6, 2016

KY: Charter Salvation?

Kentucky is one of the few states without a charter law. But what they do have is a new governor, and Matt Bevin would love to bring Kentucky into the loving embrace of the charter industry.

Kentucky residents are getting a crash course in the charter biz. That includes all of the usual arguments, including Education Secretary Hal Heiner's call to put adult interests aside and Do It For The Children. Heiner is a long-standing charter booster and real estate developer who actually ran against Bevin in the governor's race; after defeating him, Bevin appointed him ed secretary.

Heiner and Bevin believe that the children of Kentucky need more choices, but Dr. Donna Hargens, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, points out that the district offers 18 magnet schools and 52 magnet and optional programs.

Charter proponents have been pitching Indiana as a success story, including the Tindley schools of Indianapolis, and that turns out to underline the problem-- Tindley schools have just turned out to be in the middle of a financial mess, and their visionary leader will step down at the end of the year with some of his personal spending under attack. The school has been accused of having a high suspension rate, and there's also a case to be made that some Tindley charters have been the point of the spear for gentrification of neighborhoods.

But most of all, Indiana is one more place where it's becoming evident that you can't have a charter system without hitting the taxpayers up for more money. Tindley's charter company was itself begging just a few years ago when it took over Arlington High and found the finances insufficient for the job. Indiana is a bigger charter mess than we can get into here, but one thing they have conclusively proven time and again is that A) if you want to turn around a failing school, you have to spend more money on it and B) if you try to operate multiple parallel public and private systems, you will either spend a lot more money or watch a bunch of underfunded chaos and business failures. Or maybe both.

Bottom line: as a model for See How Great Charters Would Be, Indiana is a poor choice.

Kentucky charter advocates say that poor kids should have choice, and teachers should have the chance to have their pay linked to test scores.

The head of the Jefferson County School Board has called for charter involvement in the district because A) charters can be super-duper innovative and B) choice and competition are awesome. But he believes that choice is already present, and that it's up to the public schools to get the job done. He would like to bring charter operators in to just kind of help run the district, contributing their bold, innovative ideas. Will anybody be shocked and surprised when the bold, innovative idea turns out to be, "Give us more money"?

Public school proponents are pushing back. Brent McKim, head of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, wrote an op-ed that lays out the issues. Charters don't have financial transparency. Charters don't have public oversight. And he indicts charters for being agents of segregation.

There is a growing concern that the proliferation of independent charter schools is contributing to a much more isolated and homogeneous educational experience for young people that does not prepare them for the diverse and challenging world they will experience as adults.

McKim reminds us that part of the benefit of public education is supposed to be bringing students together from many different backgrounds to learn to live together and to get an education that reflects community values. There's no question that many public schools fail in this mission, but there's no reason to think that charter schools are likely to do any better. Why replace problematic public schools with charter schools which have the same problem? Wouldn't it be better to address the problem?

If Governor Bevin and his friends have their way, Kentucky will have the chance to address many problems. As a state starting from scratch, and with much to observe, they could conceivably be a state that learns from everyone else's mistakes and does charters right. Of course, that would be expensive, and charter fans never seem to want to talk about that with the taxpayers. Good luck, Kentucky.

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