Charter funding, flexibility lead Kentucky education legislative agenda

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis talks to reporters after a public hearing on proposed graduation requirements. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

This story has been updated. 

Charter school funding, changes to school-based decision-making councils and greater flexibility lead the Kentucky Department of Education’s legislative agenda for 2019, according to documents released Wednesday.

A charter funding mechanism is one of the most controversial asks, but a “very small part” of a “robust” agenda, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told the state board Wednesday. Instead of a new appropriation, Lewis wants to allow taxpayer money to follow a student to whichever school they attend, whether traditional or charter.

The proposed mechanism, coupled with a push to include more parents on SBDM councils, combine as a “parental empowerment” point on the larger agenda.

To “increase parental voice,” KDE will ask lawmakers to change how SBDM councils are made up so parents have as many votes as teachers. Currently, there are three teachers to two parents — Lewis would like that to be equal. 

But another point could weaken the councils’ power. KDE is asking to move final principal-selection power to superintendents, with councils acting more in an advisory capacity.

KDE will also push for legislation to give district and school administrators more flexibility, specifically in setting education policy and attracting and retaining effective teachers. The agenda does not explain what legislation that flexibility would require.

“In exchange for increased accountability, innovative districts would have greater flexibility,” Lewis said in a presentation to the state board of education Wednesday.

Potential changes to how district and state officials can remove “ineffective” staff via the tribunal system are also on the list. KDE seeks legislation that “prioritizes the importance of ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality effective teacher” and protects employees’ due process, the agenda said.

Jefferson County Public Schools’ legislative agenda also asks for improvements to the tribunal system.

KDE will also ask for regulations requiring diagnosis of reading and math issues in some of the state’s young learners, as well as intervention for third graders who cannot read at grade level.  That request could include allowing districts to hold back third graders if they can’t read. Sixteen states and Washington D.C. have third grade retention policies, according to the Education Commission of the States. 

Additional items on KDE’s agenda include:

  • Ratifying previous executive orders reorganizing education boards and expanding the Work Ready Kentucky scholarship
  • Giving KDE and the state board of education with more authority in handling district insolvency
  • Streamlining the application process for the Districts of Innovation program.

Board members unanimously approved the agenda, which member Gary Houchens called “bold.”

“Overall a great agenda: more autonomy for local schools/districts, greater parental empowerment, and a much-needed conversation on whether intervention programs are making a difference in student learning,” Houchens tweeted shortly after his mostly positive comments in the meeting.

Lewis initially said he would pursue a funding mechanism for charter schools in early November. 

Charter critics fear the mechanism will pull funding away from underfunded districts, while fixed costs will not drop proportionally as they lose students. If students choose not to attend charter schools, Lewis asserted in November, they won’t receive funding and the money will stay with the district. 

Multiple KBE members are charter advocates and have pushed for charters on past councils and nonprofits. Vice Chairman Milton Seymore, addressing critics, asked if KDE could embark on a marketing campaign to explain the school type because he is “fed up” with what he considers misinformation.

Charter schools receive public money, making them a form of public schools, but operate independently from a larger school district, giving them more autonomy. 

Without funding, no charters have opened in Kentucky since it passed its charter school law in 2017. And until a mechanism or other funding source is implemented, it is unlikely they will open. 

A funding mechanism was proposed in the state budget this spring, but ultimately wasn’t passed. In it, charters would receive all per-pupil dollars generated for a student that chooses to attend — all state and local funds a district would receive for a single student.

It is not a budget year, so any new appropriation would require a supermajority— at least 60 votes — in the House. Republicans hold 61 seats, down from the charter school law passage, and not all of them are in favor of charters. 

Some lawmakers, including Senate President Robert Stivers, see funding charter schools as a way to bring change to the state’s education system. 

In comments to the Courier Journal Monday, Stivers asserted that change is necessary for Jefferson County Public Schools after falsely stating the majority of the district’s schools are failing.

Stivers incorrectly claimed 75 percent of JCPS are failing. Only 15 percent of the district’s schools are comprehensive support schools — schools in the bottom 5 percent of the state. 

Potential legislation could include giving a superintendent more decision-making power, moving some of the power away from local school board, Stivers (R-Manchester) told the CJ. It could also include funding charter schools through a mechanism like what Lewis suggested. 

JCPS’ legislative agenda also asks for changes to the SEEK formula, which determines per-pupil funding from the state — but not to fund charter schools. 

“JCPS endorses legislation that modernizes the SEEK formula to address the low percentage of state SEEK contribution for districts with increasing property values,” the agenda, which was approved by the school board in October, said.

The JCPS agenda does not specifically mention charter schools, but opposes using taxpayer funds for vouchers for private schools. Opponents of charter schools tend to be against vouchers because they allow public funds to move outside of traditional districts. 

Other JCPS priorities include more funding for school safety and improving the tribunal process to “promote effective teaching while protecting due process rights of certified staff.” 

The legislature convenes Jan. 8. 

The Kentucky Department of Education’s 2019 legislative agenda