Ms. Mary Gwen Wheeler, Chair
Kentucky Board of Education
c/o Kentucky Department of Education
300 Sower Blvd., 5th Floor
Frankfort, KY 40601
Dear Chairwoman Wheeler and Members of the Kentucky Board of Education:
I am writing to provide comments from Chiefs for Change on the proposed administrative charter school regulations of the Kentucky Department of Education. Chiefs for Change is a nonprofit, bipartisan network of diverse state and district education Chiefs dedicated to preparing all students for today’s world and tomorrow’s through deeply committed leadership. We advocate for policies and practices that are making a difference today for students, and build a pipeline of talented, diverse Future Chiefs ready to lead major school systems. We are guided by a set of shared beliefs that are grounded in the vision that all American children can lead fulfilling, self-determined lives as adults.
Chiefs for Change holds that school-choice initiatives have the potential to dramatically expand opportunity for American children and their families. To fulfill that potential, such initiatives must be thoughtfully designed. Chiefs for Change believes that school-choice initiatives should align with three core principles: equitable access for all students, transparent and comparable markers of quality, and equitable distribution of resources. The experiences of our states and districts in implementing a wide variety of school choice initiatives have demonstrated that these common elements must be in place in order to catalyze the expansion of effective quality school choices and provide for their sustainable management and governance at scale.
We are heartened that Kentucky is expanding access to school choice through public charter schools and think that the proposed regulations largely align with what we have seen as best practices among our members. To ensure that the state derives the full promise of school choice, we recommend a set of small revisions to the regulations to more fully align to the principles articulated above.
Principle #1: Equitable access for all students
The first element necessary to a successful school choice system is that there must be an assurance of fairness in enrollment and admissions. Students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, and other members of historically underserved populations must be given clear and unambiguous rights to enroll in all schools, and schools should be obligated to serve them and held accountable for serving them well. Kentucky’s charter school regulations ensure fairness in enrollment and admissions by requiring open enrollment procedures and prohibiting discrimination. The provisions provide an important starting point, but the regulations could go even further to ensure fairness and equity. Kentucky law states that authorizers should give preference to operators seeking to serve disadvantaged populations. It also states that public charter schools may give enrollment preference to “those students meeting federal eligibility requirements for free or reduced lunch and those students attending persistently low-achieving public schools” (HB 520, Bill Summary, “Enrollment”). Yet the regulations do not specify that start-up charter schools may give enrollment preference to students with these characteristics (701 KAR 8:010, section 2(6)). Conversion charter schools, which may be low-performing district schools that have converted to charter status, must give enrollment preference to students currently enrolled in the converted district school. In some cases, this may result in academically disadvantaged students receiving enrollment preference (HB 520, Bill Summary, Section 10).
There is another caveat in Kentucky’s regulations that may enable schools to subtly discourage individuals or groups of students from applying to charters. The regulations expressly prohibit charter schools from asking for anything other than proof of residency, identity, age, and immunization upon enrollment. However, they allow a charter school “to request additional information with the consent of an authorizer.” Schools may not deny enrollment if students refuse to provide additional information, but in some cases merely asking for such information could discourage individuals or groups of students from applying (701 KAR 8:010, Section 4).
Principle #2: Transparent and comparable indicators of quality
The second common element that must be in place to ensure the success of school choice programs is a clear assurance of quality. We believe the goal of school choice programs is not simply choice; it is improved access to high-quality schools, and this goal will not be achieved if policy-makers do not provide incentives and supports to ensure that educational choice options are high-quality. In addition, we believe a positive choice context must also provide clear information to policymakers and parents to allow them to know how students are learning in ways that are transparent, unambiguous, and comparable from one school to the next.
Kentucky’s draft charter school regulations provide several mechanisms to hold authorizers and schools accountable for outcomes. The regulations (KAR 8:020, Section 2) specify that authorizers:
Clearly articulate their strategic vision, duties, and understanding of charter school autonomy;
Develop and disseminate performance frameworks for school oversight and evaluation;
Hold schools accountable for academic performance, financial stability, and fairness and equity in enrollment;
Establish transparent processes for monitoring school progress and making charter renewal and revocation decisions; and
Submit annual reports to the state board of education and the public to enable evaluations and comparisons of school performance on all metrics of the charter school contract.
These requirements and others will help to ensure that Kentucky’s charter schools are accountable for results and quality. However, other components of the proposed regulations could actually prevent the establishment of high-quality charter schools altogether.
The uniform charter school application and draft charter school contract that Kentucky is promulgating with its regulations may discourage high-quality charter school operators from submitting applications. The proposed charter school application is 55 pages long and includes redundant questions that focus on inputs rather than anticipated outcomes and the strategies to achieve them. For example, the application asks applicants to “describe a typical day from a student’s perspective” (Charter School Application and Addendum, p. 12). Not only will this battery of questions likely yield redundant information, it also goes beyond what the law requires an authorizer to understand about a charter school applicant. Of particular concern are the sections that address charter school facilities, given that this area has proven to be a major challenge for charter schools across the country, even for more established, high-quality networks. The volume of questions and detail required in these sections again goes beyond what the law requires, and may be a deterrent to otherwise strong applicants.
Kentucky’s draft charter school contract likewise imposes burdens on prospective applicants that could subvert charter autonomy. For example, the regulations and contract include provisions for monthly budget reviews and bi-monthly enrollment reports (KAR 8:020, Section 2). Both things are important, but such frequent reporting is unnecessary and onerous and could deter proven operators from applying for schools. Kentucky’s charter school law calls for an appropriate amount of regulation to hold charter schools accountable for quality. The regulations go beyond what the law requires.
Principle #3: Equitable distribution of resources
Finally, our third principle is that school choice initiatives must include an assurance of equitable distribution of resources across participating schools, with those schools serving students with the most intensive needs receiving resources proportionate to that challenge. Kentucky’s enabling charter school legislation, HB471 (Section 2), requires that local districts send state-allocated funds to charter schools. But the bill allows districts to retain the majority of local revenue that they levy for per-pupil tuition. This funding scheme could result in an inequitable distribution of resources, because state funds are subject to appropriation each year, which could put charter school funding at risk.
The bill also exempts districts from providing “local capital outlay or other financing mechanisms for new construction or renovations for school facilities,” which means that charter schools will be dependent upon the state and grant programs for facilities funding. This means that charter schools may be forced to divert resources that could otherwise be spent on students, to facilities (HB471, Section 2).
To achieve greater alignment between key principles of effective school choice and Kentucky’s draft charter school regulations, Kentucky should consider:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on these important administrative regulations. If Chiefs for Change can be of any assistance in formulating the final version of the regulations, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Mike Magee, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
Chiefs for Change
ABOUT CHIEFS FOR CHANGE
Chiefs for Change is a coalition of state and district education Chiefs dedicated to excellence and equity for all students. Chiefs for Change members lead education systems serving 5.3 million students, 330,000 teachers, and 10,000 schools.