COLUMN: Rep. Floyd answers the question, ‘charter schools – why or why not?’

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By David Floyd | State Representative

A Nelson County man asked me about charter schools, wondering why public charter schools don’t have to follow the same rules as traditional public schools; and if charter schools are better (which he doubts), why don’t the traditional schools change the way they’re doing business to imitate charter schools?
The answers lie in centralized control and mandatory attendance. Let’s take a look at how Kentucky sets things up.
School attendance is mandatory, and it is the responsibility of the local public school (usually the director of pupil personnel - DPP) to verify attendance or to acknowledge that an alternative is in place. In the latter case, the DPP issues a waiver to traditional school attendance.
While the DPP has a responsibility to ensure compliance with state law on mandatory school attendance, that authority does not extend to the curriculum in the alternative setting. You can school your children in your home, and that is acceptable as long as a curriculum is in place and teaching is actually undertaken. Same for private schools; the curriculum is up to the school, not the centralized education bureaucracy.
If the private school wants to be accredited, it has to comply with many state and federal requirements; for example, all teachers must be certified by the state. But accreditation is not mandatory, and many good private schools opt for their own curriculum and hire teachers for their abilities instead of their certification. They forego the process of accreditation in order to retain their independence, and they succeed or fail based on the willingness of parents to pay tuition for their children to attend.
Unlike home school or private schools, a charter school is not free from centralized state curriculum requirements. Much depends on the authorizing legislation, which varies from state to state. The charter school is “chartered” by the local school district (although in some states it is chartered by a centralized or an independent authority). The charter is in effect for a certain period of time and is renewed or not renewed, based on performance measures that are set out in the charter. Those measures include student performance, and may be different for different geographic regions.
Charter schools are not held to higher standards than traditional schools and sometimes they fail. In the case of failure a charter school closes, because it is a publicly-funded school and the charter is revoked. When a traditional public school fails, it is usually restructured or receives centralized support; closure is extremely rare.
The state mandates, in its public school curriculum, certain requirements, down to the amount of time to be dedicated in some subject areas. Many believe that innovation in education is stifled by standards imposed by centralized authority. While a charter school is privately owned, funding is provided by the state through a per-pupil formula. Charter schools cannot charge tuition. Private or charter schools are free to establish performance standards for teachers, and to dismiss the teacher if performance lags or never measures up.
While the same is true in a traditional public school, it’s rare because the public education union (the KEA) intervenes to protect their members; and KEA’s priority is not the quality of education but rather the protection of their members. Private schools are typically non-union, but charter schools are sometimes unionized.
So why a charter school, and why would a private group want to establish one? The main motivation is to provide an education tailored to the needs in a particular geographic area, and it’s primarily a factor in large, urban areas with minority populations. The traditional school uses a standardized approach to instruction that does not serve every student equally well. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to provide customized instruction to individual students when you have 35 children in your classroom. I think everyone can understand that if you take a student who lives on a farm and place him in an inner-city classroom every day, he’d struggle to excel in that setting. Well, that goes both ways, and it’s why you have minority groups urging legislators to authorize charter schools. They want an affirming educational environment for children, customized for their cultural experience. One expected benefit is that the dismal graduation rate for minority students should improve.
It’s interesting to note that, in resisting charter schools, the education bureaucracy in Kentucky is trying to modify the traditional model to incorporate the positive effects promised by charter schools. Two examples are: a move away from seniority-based teacher assignments; and intervention in low-performing traditional public schools. My opinion is that traditional public schools are absolutely necessary, but I also know that alternatives exist and many parents prefer them.
The best part of my job is hearing from you. Call me at home, come to a coffee or leave a message at 1-800-372-7181. There is no coffee scheduled this weekend, but I’ll be hanging around Bloomfield on Saturday morning, and maybe I’ll see you there.