After years of legislative defeats, Republican allies of Gov. Matt Bevin hope to introduce charter schools to Kentucky in the coming year.
Kentucky is just one of eight states that don't offer charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools due to resistance from a succession of Democratic governors and the Democratic-led House.
The new Bevin administration, big proponents of charters, aims to whittle the list down to seven.
"My hope is that we try a pilot program in Kentucky, and as it shows success, expand the system," Kentucky Education Secretary Hal Heiner told WCPO. "If you look across the country, (charter schools) have been effective as a whole."
Pilots in Kentucky's Biggest Cities
The plan is to introduce charters to Kentucky through pilot programs in Fayette County, home to Lexington, and Jefferson County, home to Louisville.
Sen. Mike Wilson, a Bowling Green Republican, said his bill to create the pilot schools would start with two in each of those counties, with the option to add another two to each county for five years. That would mean a total of 20 charter schools in the Lexington and Louisville areas.
Charter schools in other states have had a mixed record of success at improving test grades, graduation rates and other measures of success. Heiner points to successful charter schools in Indianapolis and Nashville, where charter programs continue to be expanded.
Ohio's Charter Woes
Ohio's charter system, on the other hand, has been beset by scandals and failed schools. In 2015, VLT Academy, which served 600 students in Greater Cincinnati, closed after its sponsor withdrew in August.
Ohio Department of Education Director for School Choice David Hansen was caught intentionally excluding grades of failing online schools from sponsor evaluations to make other charters look better.
Ohio lawmakers passed reforms last fall that place more responsibility and regulation on sponsors of charter schools, among other reforms backers hope improve charter performance.
Heiner said Kentucky can craft legislation that avoids the problems other states have experienced.
"One of the advantages of being 20 years late to the reform movement is we can select best practices to ensure that Kentucky's charter school system produces the level of excellence we expect," he said.
Wayne Lewis, a University of Kentucky assistant professor who Heiner has tapped for expert help implementing charters, acknowledged that Northern Kentucky residents may lean on Ohio's experience when judging the effectiveness of charters.
But he said lessons learned from Ohio and other states will be implemented in the legislation proposed in Kentucky.
Charter Opposition Remains Strong
Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, is not swayed by the argument that charters could better address achievement gaps than traditional public schools. The money that charter schools can make for investors can skew priorities away from education, he said.
"There's a big difference between not-for-profit charters and a true public school," McKim said. "An entrepreneur can create a not-for-profit charter, then contract work out to for-profit companies that sell supplies and management services and lease the land through their for-profit realty company. So the not-for-profit becomes a pass through for their for-profit businesses and partnerships."
McKim, who taught physics for 15 years before becoming union president, said the more effective path is to encourage Kentucky's Schools of Innovation initiative, which allows public schools to experiment with different ways of teaching than traditional schools.
"You could argue but for the name we already have (innovations that charters can provide), implemented by local boards, staffed by public employees and subject to sunshine laws," he said.
McKim said opposition to public schools motivates some charter advocates.
"A lot of charter advocates end up being driven by an anti-government philosophy and see public schools as government schools," he said.
Momentum for Charters
Richard Innes, staff education analyst at the Bluegrass Institute, a strong supporter of charter schools, senses momentum for the charter push in Kentucky.
"I think we have our best chance of passing a charter schools bill since we formed (in 2003)," Innes said.
Bluegrass and others are seizing on large gaps in test scores between African-American and white students in Lexington and Louisville as evidence that traditional public schools are failing some students.
"There's going to be a big fight in the House. I think the revelation is growing that we have a major achievement gap in Kentucky," Innes said.
Charter's Fate Likely to Rest in House of Representatives
As in past years, the bill may be stopped in its tracks in the House's education committee, which is led by Rep. Derrick Graham, a Franklin Democrat who has not allowed past charter bills to be introduced to the full House.
Graham did not return multiple phone calls and an email.
The fight could come down to special elections held in March to fill four vacant House seats. If Democrats win one or more, they will retain their House majority. If Republicans sweep all four, the parties would have an equal number of members.
McKim hopes to find common ground with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle regarding reform.
"I think we all agree that schools should have the ability to innovate and we should have ways for schools to request that kind of flexibility to do things differently," he said.
Wilson was confident that his charter bill will pass the Senate, but he did not hazard a guess about its fate in the House.
"That kind of remains to be seen. We know that they're asking a lot more questions this year than in the past," he said.