Kentucky’s Charter School Advisory Council meets in Frankfort. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Kentucky’s top education chief will push for a charter school funding mechanism this legislative session, he told the state’s recently recreated charter school advisory council Friday.

The suggested mechanism mirrors the one in Indiana and would allow state funds to follow students to whichever school they attend, whether a traditional public school or charter, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said.

“It’s my job, as commissioner of education, to do everything that I can to move achievement in the state, to close achievement gaps,” Lewis told reporters. “High-quality public charter schools are one of the tools that we can use to help to raise achievement.”

His request is not for an additional appropriation to fund charters, but “for dollars to be able to flow to follow kids to public charter schools.”

Under the proposal, if parents don’t want charters, then charter schools will not receive enough student funds to operate, Lewis said in acknowledgement of charter opponents. They’re “completely dependent” on parents choosing to send their kids there, he said.

Wayne Lewis

A similar funding mechanism was initially in the proposed state budget earlier this spring, but was not included in the final version. A lack of long-term funding is considered a top barrier to bringing charters to the state. Kentucky passed charter regulations in 2017.

Critics say the mechanism would pull funds away from traditional public schools. Others say it would take a fundamental shift in how Kentucky distributes per-pupil funding for the mechanism to work as described.

A school or district’s fixed expenses, like transportation and facility costs, may not drop proportionally as it loses student funding to charters, either. Lewis said it’s a legitimate concern.

“We have to also consider the reality that we need to do some different things to move student achievement,” Lewis said.

If the new funding mechanism is approved, Lewis estimates charter operators could begin applying for authorization to operate from local school boards at the earliest of late fall 2019 or spring 2020. Most operators want a year to 18 months to plan after authorization before opening a school, Lewis said.

Despite a lack of funding, Jefferson County Public Schools received two notices of intent to apply to open a charter in the district this year. Both notices were received late, so there were ultimately no official applications.

Charter schools, which receive public funds but operate independently, tend to have different governing models and have more autonomy than traditional districts. Proponents say these differences allow charters to use more innovative education models and target underserved groups.

Critics ask why, if schools work better with more autonomy, all districts aren’t afforded similar leeway.

Lewis said now is “the perfect time” to consider charters as a tool to target underserved groups and reduce achievement gaps, saying there are “plenty” of examples of high-performing charter schools.

“Those gaps are extraordinary, in fact, so extraordinary, that if we were to continue on the trajectory that we currently have in Kentucky with the achievement gaps, the gaps wouldn’t get smaller,” Lewis said.

Many educational experts and research suggest a mixed bag of success for charters. Kentucky’s regulations were created to include a “rigorous” application to attract high-quality charters, followed by accountability standards to ensure they meet those goals, council members said.

State board of education member Gary Houchens said Kentucky has one of the most rigorous charter laws, potentially resulting in fewer, but more successful, charter schools.

The charter school council mirrors a similar council created a few years ago by executive order. That council wasn’t ratified by statute and broke up, but the state education department recently resurrected it to review charter law.

Several of the current eight members were on the initial council, including charter proponents and state board of education members Houchens, Milton Seymore and Ben Cundiff.

In their first meeting since being recreated, the council reviewed regulations governing charter authorizers, appeal processes and conversation charters, but had minimal new feedback.

Cassie Blausey, director of school choice for JCPS, and Eric Kennedy, from the Kentucky School Boards Association, are expected to provide feedback on the regulations at the council’s next meeting on Jan. 23.