Commentary

Kentucky's oppressive achievement gap demands public charter schools

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Jill goes to a great school. In fact, her elementary has been rated as distinguished, the highest ranking bestowed upon any Kentucky public school. The school is located in a safe neighborhood and the teacher turnover rate is low. This is the school I want my children to attend.


But, there is a secret. Her school is among the most dangerous schools in the commonwealth for some students. If Jill’s family is higher income, her likelihood of being proficient in 4th grade reading is 91 percent. But, if Jill is eligible for free or reduced price lunch, her likelihood is only 39 percent.
No, that can’t be! Have you been to this school, it looks great!
But it is true. Two widely disparate outcomes occur in one building, and are played out daily across the state.

Children who learn differently, experience homelessness, have teeth that need filling and perhaps their stomach as well, live in a family not prioritizing education, have experienced juvenile justice, face summers in an academic desert of regression, and all need specialized education to succeed.

The very child behind academically today is unlikely tomorrow to fully join a society which is feverishly eliminating low skilled jobs. But with new forms of education developed and delivered in public charter schools around the country, this child has a better opportunity to join the 91% in achievement.

The current education discussion in Frankfort revolving around the question “should Kentucky become the 44th state to offer specialized education through public charter schools?” has unfortunately resulted in the production of intentional misstatements.

One such misstatement is that public charters pose a threat to our traditional public education system, and will syphon funding from public schools. Charter schools are public schools without tuition or special entrance requirements and would be funded with public dollars on a per-pupil basis – much like traditional public schools are funded. Public education dollars would continue to be disbursed to school districts based on the number of students they serve.

Additionally, the proposed charter legislation, House Bill 520, does not open the door for a multitude of charter school providers to rush into our Commonwealth and take over the Kentucky public school system as many have assumed. Public charter schools would be authorized by local school boards and additionally by mayors in Jefferson and Fayette counties only.

States all across the nation are making rapid advances with specialized education developed and delivered by public charter schools, providing new and more effective education options to families. Families have responded to these innovative schools positively, with one million students nationally on waiting lists.

On average, “charter students received 58 additional learning days in math and 41 additional days in reading relative to their [traditional public school] peers” annually. This quote from the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes doubled the urban charter gains they reported just three years earlier. Charters are outperforming their traditional peer schools and through innovation are running up the achievement score.

When you hear phrases from the defenders of the status quo such as “the sky is falling,” I urge you to remember our children’s needs. Children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch make up 62% of our 3rd through 8th graders. Today there are 135,000 of these Kentucky youngsters who are not reading at grade level, two-thirds of all students eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

Charters’ greatest academic gains have been with low-income students and students of color; the very students Kentucky’s traditional public schools have struggled most to reach. The addition of public charter schools in Kentucky through HB 520 provides educators across the state with an additional tool for meeting the needs of those students.

Without additional education options for these children, their unrealized potential in an increasingly technological society, will be a massive tear in the sails of our commonwealth’s future economy.

We have been celebrating Kentucky’s emergence from the very pit of national education rankings since KERA’s passage 27 years ago. We have celebrated long enough. While we have made gains, specialized forms of education are needed to reach students whose home lives are holding them back in the classroom.

We need to help the students whose parents cannot afford private schools and do not have the opportunity to homeschool. It is my hope that House Bill 520 will provide that choice and a chance for those students to succeed.

Although time is short for our generation, we can still close the gap for students at Jill’s school and the hundreds like hers. Let’s do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Hal Heiner is secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and a longtime proponent of charter schools.

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