Proceed with caution on Charter school issue

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Moving Forward by Keith Davis, Superintendent, Bullitt County Public Schools

 Charter schools are schools established by private groups using tax money.

The purpose is to allow flexibility and freedom from some of the regulation that stifles creativity in the public school and leads to greater achievement.

I will say up front that if there is ever clear evidence that charter schools (or any other method) can be more successful that our current system, I will be 100% in favor of it.

There are success stories in the charter movement.

To name one, K.I.P.P. Academies have done very strong work, especially in areas where there is a severe history of failing public schools.

If these could be replicated within the current funding system everywhere, that would be great, and there are other models that have had some successes.

With several groups and elected leaders pushing for a charter bill in the upcoming legislative session, I’d like to take the time to point out some issues that I think we should consider.

1. If the regulations the state requires of public schools are not necessary for charter schools, why not eliminate them entirely?

It seems that every session of the legislature leads to additional, not less, regulation of everything that we do.

Most often, the regulations occur as a result of something bad that happened somewhere in the state.

In my opinion, the cure is more costly than the problem cured in many cases.

For example, BCPS has not had any major problems with restrain and seclusion of our students (a technique most often used with students with emotional-behavioral disorders).

However, every single teacher, administrator, and staff member in our district and throughout Kentucky had to undergo four hours of training this summer on how to do it properly because of a regulation.

I think we can agree that time is money, so let’s say that Kentucky’s 51,000 teachers and administrators each earn about $35 per hour on average.

Statewide, that four hour training cost over $7 million.

Was it good training?


Were the teachers and administrators working and being paid anyway?


But, was this the best use of their time/money in our mission to increase student learning and opportunities?

I don’t think so.

This is but one example.

Would charter schools have to undergo this training?

If not, why not?

If so, there is just a little less of the flexibility that is supposed to make charters more effective and that is just the latest example.

There is training required for bullying prevention, suicide prevention, blood borne pathogens, school safety plans and the list goes on and on. Some of this is necessary and all of them are important to somebody, but some of it is simply to protect against lawsuits and show we are doing something about an issue.

Is it any wonder why teachers sometimes claim they don’t have time to actually teach?

2.Site-based decision making councils govern our schools and have since about 1991.

These councils were part of KERA; their purpose was to decentralize decision making authority away from the district and encourage experimentation and innovation.

Councils have wide authority to make changes to how content is taught, how and where students are assigned and how they spend the school’s budget.

Parents make up two of the six positions, teachers make up three and it is rounded out by the principal.

Aside from complying with the above-mentioned regulations and laws governing school operations, there is a lot of room to innovate if a school chooses to do so (and many do).

I’m not sure what charter schools would do different.

3. Charter schools are supposed to be more accountable to parents and to the chartering organization for performance and, if they don’t perform, they can be shut down.

What kind of bureaucracy will have to be set up (and at what cost) to monitor, inspect, and hold these schools accountable?

How long do they have to improve?

By what criteria will they be measured?

How will their finances be monitored?

As a taxpayer, if public money is used, I would expect the same transparency and adherence to generally accepted accounting principles as any government agency.

If a school is shut down, what kind of disruption will befall those kids and where will they go to school?

How many chances will there be to improve?

Would we be simply creating a parallel system with twice the administrative costs?

4. Will charter schools be a way to sort and select students so that a certain segment of society can distance itself from another segment they may deem less “desirable.”

Our society is based on the inculcation of certain shared civic values and many of them are transmitted through our public schools.

To name a few: hard work, honesty, self-reliance, teamwork, patriotism, and appropriate behavior.

Do we want special interest charters popping up that push certain ideologies or world-views with which we, as a society, may not agree and do so using our tax money?

I’m not sure how it is in every school district in the state, but in Bullitt County Public Schools, we are pretty uniform in the values we transmit and those values are reflective of our local community (and, by the way, they are good ones).

Do we want to segregate our students from less affluent and educated families - who may not have parents who advocate for their education - into schools for the “left-overs‚“  while those of us who are involved take care of our own?

If so, how will that play out over the next 50 years?

Society is disintegrated enough with technology, television channels, and communication options allowing everyone to create their own reality when they are grown-ups.

I fear that by never exposing our kids to others from somewhat different backgrounds, they will lose some of their ability to work together for the good of the community that they will very soon be leading.

I grew up without a great deal of financial opportunity (though I think I was provided pretty solid values and work ethic).

I wonder if all the kids who became my friends -many of whose parents were better off financially - would have become my friends (and examples of how life could be better) had they been put in a school that  --  one way or the other --  excluded kids from the wrong side of the tracks.

In closing, I believe there is much to learn from charter schools, especially how they can individualize instruction using technology and group students in ways that are not necessarily based on chronological age.

Rather than jump into a grand experiment with our kids as the subjects, I think our legislators might better spend their limited resources forming a commission or group to study successful practices and spread them to our existing schools, and even more importantly, figure out which regulations, laws, and policies are standing in the way of our school districts and teachers and get rid of them for everyone. 

That would be a more difficult and courageous stand because behind every regulation, there is an interested party and some of these parties are politically powerful.

By taking a hard-eyed look at the cost and benefit of such regulations, they may find that the cure is sometimes worse and more costly than the problems the cure was designed to address.