KSBA eNews Service, Frankfort, Dec. 9, 2015
Pruitt: If charters are created in Kentucky, it’s critical that law sets up “exchange of flexibility for accountability”
by Brad Hughes
In its first meeting since the change of occupants in the governor’s office, members of the Kentucky Board of Education and Commissioner Stephen Pruitt carved out time in a busy meeting to discuss an issue on the minds of many educators and leaders in the state – charter schools.
The discussions took place at the beginning of Wednesday’s KBE meeting in Frankfort and, by chance, came before an appearance by Hal Heiner, Gov. Matt Bevin’s appointee as secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
Heiner, a longtime promoter of charter schools for Kentucky, didn’t broach the subject in his brief remarks to the KBE, whose members were all appointed by former Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. The education and workforce development cabinet secretary is an occasional participant in KBE meetings, at least at the outset.
Heiner said he was eager to collaborate with the state board and the Department of Education on “the work that you are involved in (which) is the most important work that goes on in government.
“I believe our primary responsibility as adults is to prepare the next generation to fill the jobs we have in Kentucky. It’s also a moral imperative that we improve the systems we have in Kentucky. I am here to help you in those efforts to move ahead at a faster pace,” he said.
At one point, Heiner did echo earlier public statements he has made on charter schools as an alternative to low-performing public schools.
“My concern is that not all students are moving ahead as our school systems are moving ahead. Even with the latest scores, we saw in two school systems almost where the best schools are moving ahead quickly, but many schools – priority schools – are moving back. I have a great concern about a separation about schools in Kentucky,” said the former Louisville metro councilman and founder of a pro-charter organization based there. “I also have a great concern for children with learning differences or intellectual disabilities, and the kinds of services that we provide in Kentucky for those children. I really look forward to working with you closely on these issues.”
Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Roger Marcum said he and his colleagues shared some of the same concerns, especially in the area of closing achievement gaps.
“Commissioner Pruitt and I would like to meet with you as soon as possible to begin talking about some of those issues,” Marcum said.
Details of any charter law called essential
During the discussion between Dr. Pruitt and state board members, the commissioner restated much of what he told members of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents on Sunday in Louisville, adding that he felt his position on charters was very similar to that held by his predecessor, Terry Holliday.
“I actually believe in public charter schools, if we’ve got to have them, but I’m not leading the charge on this,” Pruitt said. “For me, charters are about an exchange of flexibility for accountability.
“The way I would see this happening, if we see legislation on that, I would hope there would basically be a contract that would say, ‘We want to have these regs relaxed but in exchange we’re going to do these things.’ For example, lowering their achievement gap by a certain year, increasing the number of underserved population students in advanced placement course work. There would be a very clear contract that says if you are going to get this flexibility, you’re also going to have to meet these accountability needs,” the commissioner said.
Pruitt, a former Georgia Department of Education chief of staff, had experience with charter schools in that state – some good, others not so good.
“In Georgia, at one time, we had a really good charter community,” he said. “Local boards authorized (charters) so local boards were involved, but there was state board oversight. What that means to me is it’s a way to ensure that we don’t have schools operating under the guise of a charter but really engaging in what I would call legal segregation, which is something I won’t stand for. It also ensures that they are not in a school where the regulations are relaxed but achievement has not gone forward.”
William Twyman, who was elected as the KBE’s new vice chairman today, also voiced similar concerns.
“What has the research shown (about charters)? Has the charter school movement produced much greater achievement results, especially with high needs populations?” he asked. “I’ve also seen other systems be established that re-emphasize separation and segregation, for example, a charter could use socio-economic factors to further separate and further exacerbate the achievement gap. I think that’s something we need to really take a look at – what is the real intent of charters?”
“It’s a mixed bag,” Pruitt said in response. “What it boils down to is leadership. That’s why I say for charters to work you’ve got to have strong leadership all the way up to you guys. I’ve seen (charters) work very well for underserved populations, but I’ve also seen it not work well for kids. Just slapping the word charter on your marquee doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to see improvement. You can’t simply solve a problem simply by declaring something a charter.”
Marcum pointed out that Kentucky has had a variety of charter-like options for decades
“With our Districts of Innovation, there already is that opportunity for flexibility from regulations with that expectation of accountability,” he said.
“The basis of our reform efforts going back to 1990 with KERA that those closest to the kids should be able to make the decisions for children’s education. The reality is that, if you look at KERA and the responsibilities of power and authority, they have a lot of that power and authority to have the kind of school that best meets the needs of their children. It has not been as fully realized as we hoped it would be, but it’s there in legislation,” said Marcum.
Dr. Robert King, president of the state Council on Postsecondary Education and an ex-officio member of the KBE, chimed in from his experience with charters in Arizona and New York.
“Frankly, (in Arizona) they did not have the kinds of upfront controls that were needed. The length of the charters that were awarded were 20 years; as a consequence, there was very little that could be done if a particular charter school was going off the rails,” King said. “Stanford University researchers concluded that in some cases charter schools were superb and in others they were either equal to or not as good as the public schools they were outperforming. It is not a solution for the whole of the system. The real challenge for us is to deal with the challenges we have at scale. Charters can be part of it, but you can’t say, ‘OK, now we’ve got charters, so everything is fine.’”
Pruitt reaffirmed his position that if Kentucky gets charter schools, they must be authorized by local boards of education and accountable both locally and in Frankfort.
“I’ve seen (charters) work well, and I’ve also seen it not work so well. If we see legislation on that, and hopefully it’s something that would be under your oversight, you guys are going to have to be willing to pull that charter if they’re doing wrong by kids. It’s not a panacea; it’s not a silver bullet because a lot of hard work would have to go into it. And sometimes you have to hold adults to ensure that that hard work goes on for kids,” the commissioner said.
File photo above: Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt (left) talks with KBE Chairman Roger Marcum at a state board of education meeting.