...Shelby Co. superintendent says many questions need answers before charter school law impact is clear, locally or statewide; will continue focus on meeting student needs

Sentinel-News, Shelbyville, April 5, 2017

Charter schools pass, leave questions

What does this mean to Shelby? Answers are still being written
By Ashley Sutter

The lengthy debate regarding a charter school bill in Kentucky has been put to bed. Gov. Matt Bevin signed the bill into law last week and no appeal came as the session wrapped.

Many urge that charter schools give parents additional educational opportunities for their students to be better served, while others argue the new law will take money from underfunded traditional public schools.

Shelby County Public Schools Superintendent James Neihof said it’s too early to say what the new law will mean for Shelby County, or even the state.

“The legislation gives the Department of Education a year to develop the regulations,” he said, noting he was there on Tuesday for a committee meeting where they discussed the process.

“They have just begun talking about this and they anticipate this is going to be a big focus for them,” he said. “So it will probably take them about six months to write these [regulations] so we’re not going to have regs before the beginning of 2018 on how this is going to work. I think this is important for people to know because anything anybody says right now is guesswork because no regulations have been written yet.”

Neihof said one major aspect of a charter school bill that has left people concerned is the matter of funding.

“The law says that funding will follow the kids. But it also says that local tax dollars will stay in the local community, so the questions are what adjustments will be made at the state level to funding so that adequate funding can flow to those schools,” he said. “Nobody knows that answer. There are going to have to be some adjustments made to the funding formula at the state level.”

Neihof said whether that impacts SEEK, Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, funding or not is a separate question. “What many people are saying is they need to find a funding stream somewhere else so that SEEK is held harmless,” he said, noting they don’t know for a fact that it will be. “We are in a wait mode, we just don’t have that answer.”

Niehof said the service side of the bill is another big aspect.

He said charter schools that are established out of this law cannot be exclusionary or just for certain groups.

“They [must] mirror the demographics of our communities and of our state,” Neihof said. “That is overwhelmingly seen by educators as being a good thing – that charter schools should mirror communities.”

He also noted that local boards grant charters, though they do not have the final say.

“So if an organization wants to put a charter in a school district, their application would go to the local board. The state board would only get involved if the local board has denied it, the agency asking for the charter appealed it and they [the local board] denied it the second time. Then the charter applicant would have the option to appeal to the state board,” he said. If ultimately the state board approved it, the state board would be able to override the local board.

“But then the governance would be a shared governance between the local board and the state board.”

Neihof said that aspect of the bill has bothered some of the members of local school boards.

"They have felt like the state board shouldn’t be allowed to override the local board. But that is ultimately the way it shook out in the legislation,” he said, adding that it was a point of negotiation and discussion.

Niehof said it is too preliminary to determine the direct impact charter schools will have on Shelby County but the important thing is that SCPS continues its work on personalized learning.

“The important thing for us is that we continue on the road to personalize the learning opportunity for every student, and for students to feel like, and parents to feel like, all the options we need exist in our school district and we don’t need anything else,” he said. “Usually charter schools come out of communities where people feel like their needs aren’t being met and our goal is clearly to meet the needs of our community. So if anything, this serves as an imperative to us as a school district to say if there are areas we need to improve, lets get about that business. Let’s talk to our stakeholders, let’s ask them are we meeting their needs and if not, what can we do better. That’s the way I see it.”

Public Relations Coordinator Ryan Allan said the district is wrapping up the Strategic Leadership Plan and beginning work on the next plan.

“We are beginning the process now of investing in our community, to partner with us, to work with us, to help us figure out what we want our students to be able to do,” he said, noting they will determine what a diploma from Shelby County Public Schools will mean.

Neihof agreed. “When we give our kids a diploma, what does that mean in terms of their readiness to be a productive member of society,” he said, explaining that is just one example of how the district is working to focus on the needs of students.

“I believe that the same purposes that people have when they get behind charter legislation are the same purposes that drive our strategic plan, and we’ve been in that work for quite a while,” he said. “So we want to make the world a better place and we believe we need to responsible for more than a test score in order to do that.”

Neihof said through personalized learning academies and the Big Picture Learning Academy, the district is continuously focused on providing opportunities to meet the needs of all students.

“We want to make those things highly impactful so that people feel like their needs are being met and if that happens, in my mind we’re doing the same thing as what charter schools do for our community,” he said. “I’m hopeful that people will continue wanting to be here and want to be here even more than they do now and that we continue to grow. I don’t anticipate that we are going to lose students.”

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