What’s next in NKY’s pilot charter school saga

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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This story originally appeared in the Jan. 13 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe.

Questions are looming after Northern Kentucky University in December declined to be the authorizer of the region’s pilot charter school, and the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that a key charter school funding element was unconstitutional. 

In 2022, House Bill 9 established the Kentucky Charter School Pilot Program and created a funding mechanism for charter schools. The bill listed Northern Kentucky University and gave the university the option to be the authorizer. The university’s Board of Regents decided not to vote on a resolution to be the authorizer of the future school, effectively declining the role altogether. 

Now, the responsibility of authorizer will fall on local school districts, which will be required to put forward two board members from districts located in a county that contains four or more local school systems – ruling out areas like Boone County, which has just two public school districts. Kenton and Campbell counties currently qualify. 

These members will become the substitute pilot project authorizer. It’s unclear when a decision has to be made on who will sit on this authorizing board, but the substitute pilot authorizer needs to approve a charter school application by July 1, 2024, according to House Bill 9 language. 

Critics of public charter schools have argued that the schools are allowed to deny some students enrollment while still receiving public school dollars. Meanwhile, those who want charter schools feel the existing public school systems would improve with competition beyond parochial schools. 

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“All you do in charter schools is create potential haves versus have nots,” Gov. Andy Beshear told LINK nky in an end-of-year interview in Frankfort.

In the state report card released in October, Northern Kentucky schools did not fare well. For the first time since 2019, the state reported federal statuses for individual schools, such as Comprehensive School Improvement and Targeted School Improvement.

Multiple Northern Kentucky schools were rated as CSI, which the state describes as those in the bottom 5% of student performance. The Kentucky Department of Education stated that about 50 schools would be identified as CSI on a yearly basis.

In Northern Kentucky, Grandview Elementary in Bellevue; Holmes High School and Ninth District Elementary in Covington; and Newport’s middle school grades received the designation, putting them in the bottom 5% of schools in the state. 

As a supporter of public education, Beshear blamed the Republican legislature for issues with the state’s education system.

In response to lower test scores in recent years, Campbell County residents formed the Newport Education Task Force. It’s a watchdog group that wants to see improvements in the Newport Independent Schools system. For the last two years, the group has released its own report that analyzes the school system, its performance, and other factors like budget and teacher pay. 

In its most recent report, it shows the Newport Independent School District has some of the highest paid administrators in the area paired with the lowest academic performance. 

Test scores are a common thread among parents who want to send their children elsewhere, and leaders of the Newport Education Task Force have shared with LINK nky that it’s why many residents are eager to see a charter school – they welcome the possibility of more public school options in the area. 

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Charter school advocates have also promoted the idea that competition for the area public schools will garner better results all around. 

Between NKU declining its authorizer role and a recent ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court, how the Commonwealth will launch its pilot charter school program is a question that remains unanswered. 

A tax credit scholarship program written into House Bill 563 would have sent tax credits from the state to donors who donated to scholarship-awarding organizations. The scholarship money would then be given to disadvantaged students to attend private or charter schools. 

The tax credit program was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court, just days after NKU declined its authorizer role, because it would send taxable funding to private schools, the court argued. 

Proponents of the program said it gives parents school choice, while opponents said that common schools are important because it gives students a chance regardless of their circumstances. 

The idea of equitable common schools comes from a 1989 decision — Rose v. Council for Better Education — by the Kentucky Supreme Court that found inequity in Kentucky’s public school system and that the General Assembly must “provide an efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

But, the legislature has whittled away that ruling over the years, according to Dr. Randy Poe, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Education Council and former Boone County Schools superintendent. He said legislation such as House Bill 563 and House Bill 9 have chipped away at the equitable schools precedent set in 1989, and argued that lawmakers are tipping the scale in charter schools’ favor rather than investing in the existing public schools. 

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In an interview with LINK nky, Beshear said both political parties should consider setting politics aside to uphold public education.

“Charter schools are out there because of the amount of money we put in our public school system,” Beshear said. “The answer isn’t to starve our public school system of even more dollars.” 

The president of EdChoice Kentucky, which has lobbied the legislature for school choice in Kentucky, said that the Supreme Court decision will hold back thousands of Kentuckians from reaching their potential. 

“Courts across the nation – from state supreme courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — have universally upheld similar school choice programs as legitimate expressions of parents’ fundamental rights over their children’s education,” said EdChoice Kentucky President Andrew Vandiver. 

He further argues that more than 30 states have school choice programs, and the number of enrolled students continues to grow yearly.

The Supreme Court’s decision could set up a future precedent for cases involving charter schools in Kentucky, which could eliminate options for charter advocates.

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