FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky's two-decade resistance to charter schools is likely to end with Republicans set to dominate state politics beginning in January.
Now, the battle lines are being drawn to decide who will control the schools, how they'll be funded and how traditional public schools are affected.
"We have an achievement gap between children who have strong supports at home and children who have gaps in their life," Kentucky Education Secretary Hal Heiner told WCPO. "Our hope in Kentucky, if we were to have that possibility and become the 44th state to have charters, is that would we pick from the highest-performing states' legislation."
Opponents to adding charters to compete with traditional public schools in Kentucky have few tools left to stop their introduction. Pro-charter Republicans now control the governor's office and have super-majorities in the senate and house. Democrats, who controlled the House since 1921, were routed on Nov. 8.
Those hoping to stem the tide hold out little hope.
"I think charter schools are a bad fit for Kentucky," said Wilson Sears, a former executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, expressing his personal opinion. "What can be done at this point? I'm not optimistic that anything can be done."
Sears wrote an op-ed first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader in which he condemned charter schools as using tax money to privatize public school and risk profiteers draining resources from education.
Devil in the details
Heiner is excited at the prospect of introducing charters as a means to fight the persistent achievement gaps between white students from middle- and high-income families and poorer scores among students from ethnic minorities, low-income families and disabled students.
He points to examples like Success Academy Charter Schools in New York, which has closed achievement gaps in standardized test scores, as evidence that charters can do what traditional public schools have not.
Heiner acknowledges the mixed record of charters around the country, but said that Kentucky has an advantage in being so late to introduce them.
"We can learn from Ohio's difficulties and Indiana's great successes," he said.
Ohio charters have ricocheted from scandal to scandal in recent years, with state officials throwing out some low scores to skew results, exorbitant lease costs, doctored or missing attendance sheets and multiple charters closing after poor performances, including VLT Academy in Cincinnati.
Heiner said Kentucky can avoid such pitfalls by structuring its charter system to be transparent and to have high accountability.
"I personally believe there should be a very high barrier to entry (to start a charter school)," he said. "Some were mistaken to have low barrier."
Traditional public schools concerned
Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe said he is a Republican who is not a fan of charters.
He points to the major selling point of charters having the freedom to innovate with different school-year calendars, school day lengths and specialized curriculum. And he asks why the state can't give existing public schools the same room to experiment.
"If you're saying you want me to be more flexible, then allow me the same things as charters," he said. "Why don't they allow the rest of the public schools to get rid of those same rules and not be hamstrung by them?"
Poe has many concerns about charter schools, including where the money comes from. Under Kentucky's current SEEK spending formula, Northern Kentucky schools would stand to receive less money per student if the Fayette and Jefferson county pilot programs were introduced, he said.
He worries that charter schools would draw students with the most engaged parents away from traditional public schools and leave teachers and administrators to try to serve the most at-risk students without the benefit of having the more engaged students setting an example.
"The children who are left behind whose parents are not engaged are the ones who suffer," Poe said.
He also pointed to the families re-segregating by race or economics as a consequence of charters being offered in other states.
"Basically, charters re-segregate. That's why the NAACP has asked for a moratorium on new charters," Poe said.
If charters are to be introduced, Poe wants the funding to be controlled locally by each district's school board.
"There's probably going to be some form of charters no matter whether they're taking money away from us in Northern Kentucky or not," he said. "They should be under local board control. If they're under local control, local funds are not lost."
And he'd like the option of turning the whole district into a charter district to let his schools compete on a level playing field.
"I'm all for school choice if you allow me to operate the same way," Poe said.
State budget control and no new flexibility for traditional public schools would be problematic, he thinks, including transferring tax money from schools into for-profit foundations.
"The charter movement isn't necessarily funded by individual people. It's funded by large corporations that stand to make a lot of money," he said.
Structure is key
Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt worked with charter schools in Georgia before coming to Kentucky and witnessed first-hand some that were successful and some that failed, he said.
"I saw where there were charters that did remarkable things for kids. I also saw some charters that didn't necessarily have the needs of student in mind," he said. "I hope we keep the conversation about students. It should be about our students having opportunities to succeed."
Buy-in and participation among local school districts is a key to success, he said.
"We need to be thoughtful about issues around funding. School districts had the first right of refusal (to introduce charter schools) in the system I came from. I am a believer in local control. We want our districts to be engaged in any type of school," Pruitt said.
On the other hand, the state may want the power to introduce charter schools in districts that refuse to cooperate, he said.
Rep. Arnold Simpson, a Covington Democrat and veteran lawmaker, shares many of Poe's misgivings about charter schools. But he said that elections have consequences, and he wants to be open to proposals generated by Republican colleagues.
"One of the things we have to admit is that the public school system has failed our students in some instnaces. The achievement gap is not improving. Maybe it's time to engage in this great experiment," he said.
Simpson sounded philosophical about being thrust into the political minority.
"One can be an obstructionist or one can accept the status quo and work on the outer extremes to make it a better policy," he said. "We all have to be open minded. I'm not going to start the relationship by talking about the bad things."