The public school vs. public charter school debate has already begun


Let’s not fool ourselves. The real story behind the debate over public education in Kentucky has little to do with pension reform.  Instead, for anyone willing to take just a moment to consider the agenda of Gov. Matt Bevin, you will soon discover that this is not about demonizing Kentucky public school teachers or the Kentucky Education Association, but rather the public comments are part of a plan to fuel a much-needed debate about public schools versus public charter schools in Kentucky.  

The public comments are also part of a plan to garner greater public support for Gov. Bevin’s long-term desire to shift public education dollars from public schools to public charter schools.


If there is any doubt about Gov. Bevin’s passion and support for public charter schools, consider his comments as governor-elect when he said, “What people don't realize is public charter schools are public-schools taught by public-school teachers, attended by public school students, and paid for by public school dollars. Nothing changes except you remove some of the bureaucracy, you remove some of the onerous auditing processes on the teachers themselves that rob them of the ability to teach, and you remove some of the power and suffocation of the teachers’ unions itself.”


At the risk of ending the debate over public schools versus public charter schools before it begins, one question that necessarily needs to be answered is just exactly what part of the so-called bureaucracy of public schools would, or for that matter could, Gov. Bevin remove from public charter schools?  One is left to wonder when Gov. Bevin made those comments whether he had considered that the so-called public-school bureaucracy is the result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974?  What the proponents of public charter schools often fail to understand, or fail to fully explain, is just how they would remove the so-called public-school bureaucracy from public charter schools, a so-called bureaucracy which is for the most part the result of compliance with federal laws. 


Maybe, just maybe, the proponents of public charter schools should take a few minutes and visit the Kentucky Department of Education’s website and consider the myriad requirements which are attached to the millions of dollars in federal funds which Kentucky accepts every year, funds which are necessary to educate Kentucky’s children.  Would any plan to remove the so-called bureaucracy requirements from public charter schools include turning down federal dollars which keep open the doors of Kentucky’s public schools?  Probably not!


Undoubtedly, any debate regarding changes which could be made to eliminate the requirements of the so-called bureaucracy of public schools would take hours, days, months, and years.  For example, have the proponents of public charter schools considered the federal laws which add to the so-called bureaucracy in Kentucky’s public schools which require that educational opportunities be made available to every student, and their families, based on their home language.  In Fayette County alone, the so-called bureaucracy required to comply with federal law must address 89 distinct spoken languages which requires an in-house staff of nearly 75 interpreters.  The question public charter school proponents have yet to answer is whether public charter schools would be able to comply with these federal laws or would students who speak different languages simply be excluded from attending public charter schools. 


Of course, there are many other federally mandated requirements which add to the so-called bureaucracy in public schools, including programs which ensure that every child, yes that means every Kentucky child, has access to educational opportunities which includes children with learning disabilities and myriad other distinct and practical learning problems which likely would not and could not be addressed in public charter schools.  In the end, every student, not simply a select handful, deserve the same educational opportunities which they receive today because of the so-called bureaucracy which Governor Bevin has suggested he would eliminate under his public charter school plan for Kentucky.  Hopefully, we have not already forgotten the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” or its replacement the “Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015.”


Although much more could be said in the growing debate surrounding public schools versus public charter schools, one thing is certain, all Kentuckians have an obligation to carefully consider the long-term consequences before we decide to shift Kentucky’s decreasing public education dollars from public schools to public charter schools.  In the words of Cynthia Franklin, Ph.D., associate dean for doctoral education in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, “…statistics show that charter schools serve fewer children with disabilities than public schools do. This creates a two-tier system where charter schools cherry-pick their students, and all other students default back to public schools.” 


As a final note, one should not doubt that Gov. Bevin’s passionate support for public charter school’s evidences what can best be described as his true concern for the future of the education of Kentucky’s children.  Unfortunately, what has been missing these past months has been the inability of the sides to come to the table and begin a much-needed debate about the future of public education in Kentucky.  At the risk of offending the parties, and ending a much-needed debate on education reform in Kentucky even before it begins, it might just be appropriate to suggest, and yes encourage the parties to set aside their differences for a moment, join hands and begin a discussion which will make Kentucky’s public schools a model for the nation, not just a headline on the nightly news. 


Finally, as I often do, I would invite each of you who share my frustration about the direction of the debate regarding the future of Kentucky’s public schools and the education of Kentucky’s children to help me shout as loudly as possible to everyone who really cares about true education reform that the time has come to end the name-calling; the time has come to gather around a table; and most importantly, the time has come to begin a public discussion on how all Kentuckians can best work together to improve public school education in Kentucky, not destroy it.


Mark Wohlander, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, practices law in Kentucky.


Kentucky Today’s Perspectives section provides a public forum for our readers to express their views on issues of importance. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and should not be construed as an official position taken by this newspaper. We encourage you to join in the conversation by sending your essays to We reserve the right to reject submissions deemed inappropriate.


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