Thursday, April 15, 2010

Teachers Unions vs. Education: The saga of charter schools in Kentucky

It was sort of like a Shakespeare play: Charter school legislation in Kentucky was dead, and then it was alive again, and then it was dead again. But it could come back. Again. Today, the last day of the legislative session.

The saga of the innovative way to set up a public school began with the effort to convince state lawmakers that it was simply a good idea: allow parents to charter a school that would be funded by public money, but that would be free of many of the burdensome regulations placed on other public schools. Charter schools are increasingly popular across the country and Kentucky is one of the few states with no charter school legislation.

It's an idea that parents love--and teachers unions hate, since it results in less control by the unions of the process. Teachers unions want control of public schools for their own political purposes and unfortunately our public officials listen to them more than they listen to parents--or actual school teachers in the classroom.

Enter the Obama administration.

When President Obama appointed Arne Duncan, a charter school advocate, to be his secretary of education, the federal press for charter schools began. The administration, through the Race to the Top program, began dangling millions of dollars in front of states to push education reform. One of the things they got money for was charter schools.

In March of this year, state senators moved ahead with charter legislation, anticipating that the Kentucky might have trouble receiving Race to the Top grants because of Kentucky's lack of charter schools. A group of Republican senators met and agreed to vote for the bill, but when the meeting of the Senate Education Committee actually happened, one of them balked and changed her vote, killing the bill.

When Race to the Top grants were announced in early April, sure enough, Kentucky lost out, and only two states received money: Delaware (receiving $500 million) and Tennessee (receiving $100 million). And when state officials started looking at the numbers, they realized that if they had received the points for charter school legislation, they would have been the number two state in the nation, right after Delaware, and would have received at least what Tennessee had received.

The price tag for kowtowing to the teachers union had cost the state over $100 million.

Lawmakers quickly rethought their position. At a time of tight budgets, hundreds of millions of dollars was looking pretty good. The State Senate met promptly and passed a charter schools bill and sent it to the House before the General Assembly recessed in early April. They were to meet on April 14 and 15 to finalize a budget. At press time, the fate of the bill still wasn't clear, but State Commissioner of Education Terry Holiday had become a convert, calling on lawmakers to pass the bill.

We could still get this legislation this afternoon, simply because the federal government dangled millions of dollars in front of us. But there is going to have to come a time when state education officials start thinking less about the teachers unions and start thinking more about parents.

No comments: