Kentucky is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow charter schools, making it something of an educational backwater. Republicans have been trying to pass charter-school legislation since 2009, only to be stymied by Democrats, who had a lock on the governorship and state House.
But charters’ time in the Bluegrass State may have finally arrived. In 2015 Republican Matt Bevin, a charter-school champion, was elected governor. Then last year Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921 and unseated Speaker Greg Stumbo, a staunch opponent of school choice. Republicans now hold large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly—64 of 100 seats in the House and 27 of 38 in the Senate.
Even teachers unions and local school boards seem resigned to the inevitability of allowing charter schools. To limit the damage to their interests, they’re trying to exploit divisions among Republicans to keep charters tightly contained by conceding regulatory authority to the local boards.
Kentucky schools rank about average nationwide, though large disparities exist among districts. Last year 77% of middle-school students in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas scored “proficient” on state math tests. Four miles away in Newport, only 30% did. For Jefferson County (Louisville), the figure was 39%.
“We have a great city, a beautiful downtown, trails,” says Lynn Schaber, a Newport mom whose second-grade son attends a Montessori school. “But people aren’t happy with the school system. As they say around here, it’s trikes, no bikes. People move out of the city once their kids get older than 3 because of the poor schools.”
Like many suburban and rural districts in Kentucky, Newport has only one elementary, middle and high school. Parents in low-performing districts who can afford it send their kids to private schools or move to districts with better schools like Fort Thomas, where the median home price is about twice that of Newport. Thus, public schools and cities become segregated along socioeconomic, and in some cases racial, lines. Nearly 90% of Newport students qualify for free or discounted lunches, compared with about 15% in Fort Thomas.
Such gaping inequities are driving support for charter-school legislation that would bring Kentucky’s education system into the 21st century. Last month state Rep. Phil Moffett introduced a bill that would allow local school districts, college governing boards, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the Louisville and Lexington mayors, and the state Board of Education to authorize charters.
Multiple authorizers would enable students to travel outside their home districts to attend a charter. By contrast, district authorizers could limit enrollment to students within their bounds. This would be a huge impediment to charter growth in rural and suburban areas where there are fewer students. Newport’s system-wide enrollment is just 1,600 students—fewer than in some big-city high schools.
Mrs. Schaber has joined five other parents to devise plans for a charter school that will enroll students from six small cities across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. She notes that parents frequently move between the cities, depending on their job and housing. So it makes sense to form a regional charter.
Charter opponents are pushing a weaker bill that would vest local school boards with the sole power to authorize and regulate charters. That would let those boards, typically controlled by the unions, throw up roadblocks. While charters could appeal district decisions to the state Board of Education, the process would be cumbersome and costly. Only charters backed by well-heeled donors would have the resources to navigate and battle the education bureaucracy.
The experience of other states is instructive. Iowa, Kansas and Virginia don’t allow multiple authorizers and have few charter schools. Arizona, Minnesota and New York do, and have an abundance. Charters in the latter group of states are among the highest-performing nationwide.
The weaker bill would also require charters to participate in and contribute to the state’s insolvent public pension system, among the worst funded in the country. So they could be forced to pick up the retirement tab for union teachers in traditional public schools.
Local school boards have lobbied Republicans to reject legislation with multiple authorizers and instead back the diluted bill, which they say will hold charters more accountable. “People love their local school board,” says Mrs. Schaber. “They want to support it.”
That may be, but allowing local school boards to regulate their competition is fundamentally unfair. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last year that a law allowing Amtrak to regulate freight trains that compete for track time could not be sustained under the Fifth Amendment: “Giving a self-interested entity regulatory authority over its competitors violates due process.” The same principle should apply when children’s futures are at stake.
Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.