FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- The House of Representatives moved quickly Friday to approve a bill allowing charter schools in Kentucky, prompting a vigorous debate touching on the politics of race and class in a state struggling with poverty and some low-performing schools.
Kentucky is one of seven states that don't allow some form of charter schools, which are publicly funded but exempt from most of the state standards that govern every other public school.
A bill to change that had been bouncing around the Republican-controlled legislature for weeks until GOP leaders announced they had reached an agreement Thursday night. House Bill 520 passed the House Education Committee on Friday morning and then passed the full House, 56-39.
It now heads to the Senate, where Republican Majority Leader Damon Thayer called its prospects "excellent."
House Bill 520 would let local school boards and the mayors of Louisville and Lexington contract with private groups to create charter schools in their communities. Each of these schools would be governed by an independent board of directors that must include two parents from the school's students. The contracts would have to be renewed every five years.
Only local school boards and the mayors of Louisville and Lexington could approve the contracts, but their decisions could be overruled by the state Board of Education. Anyone could ask to create a charter school, with one exception: for-profit companies. However, a school's board of directors could contract with for-profit companies to run the school.
If a student leaves a traditional public school to attend a charter school, the state tax dollars would follow that child to the new school, except for a 3 percent processing fee, money earmarked for debt payments, construction and, in some cases, transportation.
Supporters say the schools could be tailored to meet the needs of at-risk children — often including minority students — in a state where nearly 70 percent of public school students qualify for free lunch. Education and Workforce Development Secretary Hal Heiner said charter schools could have longer school days, serve three meals a day, help students with homework assignments and offer half-day Saturday sessions to help absent students catch up.
"This is a civil rights movement of the 21st century," said the Rev. Milton Seymore, a member of the state Board of Education. "It's time for all children to have the opportunity to create wealth."
Opponents say traditional public schools can accomplish the same things, but they must have the proper resources and support. They warned that charter schools would drain money from traditional public schools while leaving them with the most challenging students.
"It is much easier for these schools to educate their children and turn out impressive test scores when their populations are purposefully engineered to serve more motivated children and their parents," said Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association.
The bill has exposed partisan tensions in the House of Representatives, which is now controlled by Republicans for the first time in nearly 100 years. Gov. Matt Bevin said he was "personally disgusted" with people who opposed the bill, accusing them of being more concerned about money than students.
"The argument that this is somehow a threat to the public education system is a lie. It is a scare tactic, it is meant to preserve the statute quo," Bevin said. "This is not a threat to anything except failure."
Democratic state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville asked Bevin if he had a financial interest in charter schools. When Bevin said no, she asked to see his tax returns, which Bevin has refused to release.
"To call people liars or disgusting because we oppose your point of view, I think, denigrates the people of Kentucky and all of us," she said.