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UPDATED: Kentucky House Approves Charter School Bill

After a lengthy debate and rushed legislative process, the state House of Representatives has passed a charter schools bill. The measure passed 56-39.

The legislation now heads to the state Senate, where it’s expected to pass.

Under the bill, private organizations and community members can apply to open up a charter school. Local school districts and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville would be charged with approving or denying the charters, though denials could be appealed to the state board of education.

Rep. Robert Benvenuti, a Republican from Lexington, said that the policy would create more competition in Kentucky’s public education system.

“The noise that you hear is the noise that occurs when a monopoly that’s inside of a bureaucracy starts to crumble,” Benvenuti said during a debate on Friday.

Charter schools would be funded by the state on a per-pupil basis much like traditional public schools and funding would “follow” students if they transfer from a traditional school to a charter.

Opponents to the legislation worried that the bill would siphon money away from traditional public schools.

“It’s going to suck the life’s blood out of our public schools,” said Rep. Will Coursey, a Democrat from Symsonia.

Bevin Goes After Critics

Gov. Matt Bevin threw his support behind the legislation during a hearing Friday morning and criticized political opponents to the policy.

“The argument that this is somehow a threat to our public education is a lie,” Bevin said. “This is not a threat to anything except failure. A threat to those who have failed certain school districts.”

Bevin said he was “personally disgusted” by opponents, saying they were obsessed with power and money.

The bill would allow community residents, public organizations and nonprofits to apply for charters to operate the schools, which would be exempted from state regulations except for safety, civil rights, and disability protections.

Supporters of the legislation say it would create opportunities for educational innovation, especially in areas with failing schools.

Rev. Milton Seymore is a member of Kentucky’s State Board of Education and a charter school supporter.

“We don’t want to be left behind no longer,” Seymore said. “And it’s time for our children to have the opportunity to create wealth and be a part of this great commonwealth.”

‘Too important a topic to rush’

Local school districts and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville would have the power to authorize charter schools. If applications are initially denied, contenders could appeal to the state Department of Education.

In a statement earlier this afternoon, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said while charters were not part of his legislative agenda, he supports “any effort to give our children the very best education possible.”

“First and foremost, we must ensure a quality education is accessible to all children in all neighborhoods, and work to close student learning gaps,” said Fischer. “Research shows that good charter schools can deliver educational improvement.”

Fischer went on to say that the issue is ” too important a topic to rush” and called for the process to be slowed down.

Stephanie Winkler, president of Kentucky Educators Association, criticized the appeal process.

“The final decision about whether a charter will open in your local school district will ultimately be made by political appointees who are not accountable to your community,” Winkler said.

The meeting Friday morning was the first time the charter school bill had been presented publicly, though charters have been a constant subject of discussion during this year’s legislative session.

House Speaker Jeff Hoover announced Thursday evening that Republicans had come to an agreement over the legislation. Many rural Republicans had voiced concern that charters would hurt their local districts if they opened up nearby.

Rep. Regina Bunch, a Republican from Williamsburg and former teacher, said she voted in favor of the bill after a change of heart.

“It doesn’t fit rural Kentucky, but there are areas that have a need. And that’s what we’re here about is the needs of the children,” Bunch said.

Rep. Attica Scott, a Democrat from Louisville, voted against the bill.

“I don’t see and haven’t heard where charter schools are going to fundamentally change the way in which education is done in the state of Kentucky that public schools couldn’t do if they were fully funded,” Scott said.

This story has been updated. 

Copyright 2017 89.3 WFPL News Louisville

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. Always looking to put a face to big issues,Ryland'sreporting has taken him to drought-weary towns in West Texas and relocated communities in rural China. He's covered breaking news like the 2014 shooting at Fort Hood Army Base and the aftermath of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
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