FRANKFORT -- Republican lawmakers took aim at Kentucky's public education system Wednesday, moving closer toward a repeal of Common Core standards and passing a bill to create public charter schools that would operate outside state supervision.
Kentucky was the first state in the country to adopt the Common Core educational standards, a movement started by the National Governors Association that became a Republican punching bag after its embrace by the Obama administration. And Kentucky has been one of the last states to ban charter schools that get state funding but are governed by an independent board of directors.
Both bills have been GOP priorities for years, but this legislative session is the first either has had a chance of passing, now that Republicans are firmly in control of state government.
The House of Representatives gave the charter schools bill final passage Wednesday night by a vote of 53-43, sending it to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's desk.
Senate Bill 1 would gradually repeal the Common Core standards. It passed the House 94-0 on Wednesday, but must be approved by the Senate once more before it heads to the governor's desk.
The charter schools bill pits the new GOP leadership against public school teachers and administrators. Both sides have pointed to "achievement gaps" between students based on race and income, with opponents saying the bill would simply siphon money from already underfunded public schools.
"If we have a failing school the answer is not to create another school, it is to fix the problem in that school," said Democratic state Sen. Ray Jones.
Republicans say it would give parents and students more options and force public schools to improve in order to retain students.
"They are afraid of being held to account. They are afraid of offering better choices. It might demand something of them," Republican Gov. Matt Bevin told lawmakers during a Senate Education Committee meeting.
House Bill 520 would let nonprofits or groups of parents and teachers set up a charter school. The local school board would have to approve it. Rejection could be appealed to the state Board of Education, appointed by the governor. The bill also would enable the mayors of Louisville and Lexington to authorize charter schools in their cities.
Charter schools would be funded based on the number of students they enroll. If a student leaves a traditional public school and enrolls in a charter school, state and federal tax dollars would follow that student to the new school, with some exceptions. Money earmarked to pay off debts and transportation would stay with the traditional public school, plus a 3 percent "authorizer fee."
Students could not cross district lines to attend charter schools, unless the districts have an agreement that allows it. The bill requires charter schools to give enrollment preferences to siblings and children of school employees. But it says schools are encouraged -- but not required -- to give preference to students in poverty or at risk of academic failure.
"The charter school comes in takes the best and brightest and leaves your public schools with those hard to teach students. That's not a prescription for success," Democratic state Sen. Reggie Thomas said.
Republican Sen. David Givens said forcing charter schools to accept only high-risk students would be too restrictive. He noted the school funding formula spends more money on students with special needs and who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
"There is a financial incentive to target those typically adverse populations," he said.
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