For the first time since charter schools were legalized in Kentucky in 2017, the state’s school board has left advocacy for their permanent funding off its list of legislative priorities.
With Gov.-elect Andy Beshear expected to take office in less than a week after running an educator-backed campaign, board member and Western Kentucky University professor Gary Houchens said the board wanted a 2020 legislative agenda that was “achievable.”
“What the board was looking for this year with a legislative agenda was to prioritize a handful of issues that we believe are both essential to the education system and also achievable,” Houchens told the Daily News after the board’s Wednesday meeting, during which the agenda was approved.
Houchens, a prominent school choice advocate, has called on lawmakers to establish a permanent charter school funding mechanism since legislation passed in 2017 that cleared the way for them to open in the state.
But with no charter schools funding mechanism in place, and Beshear unlikely to sign one into law, Houchens said the board wanted to set “believable” goals.
“I think what we settled on was exactly right,” Houchens said.
Topping the board’s advocacy agenda is legislation that would ratify the reorganization of the Education Professional Standards Board, which was moved under the Kentucky Department of Education’s control last year as the result of an executive order signed by Gov. Matt Bevin.
At the time, the move was branded as a way to promote greater efficiency and coordination for state efforts around teacher preparation, licensure and credentialing, but it needs legislative approval to become permanent.
Kentucky’s Board of Education will also push for several early childhood education improvements, including funding for full-day kindergarten in all Kentucky schools.
The agenda notes that the “continued failure to ensure all students have access to full-day kindergarten is a school funding concern, but just as important, a student achievement and equity concern.”
Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton has previously said that fully funding all-day kindergarten would create a cost savings of more than $2 million in state per-pupil funding for the local district. Similarly, it would free up more than $600,000 in the Bowling Green Independent School District’s budget, according to BGISD Superintendent Gary Fields
“This would enable us to increase services for our students through the redirection of existing funds currently used to offset the full cost of our kindergarten and preschool programming,” Clayton told the Daily News in October.
Also in the vein of early childhood education, the state board will campaign for more thorough diagnosis and intervention for struggling readers before they reach the third grade. It’s calling for intervention efforts aimed at “ensuring all Kentucky students reach a minimum bar of competency in reading … as measured by state assessments or comparable measures.”
Other priorities for legislation include promoting career and technical education, streamlining the approval process for school districts’ facilities requests and generally granting schools more flexibility and freedom for innovation.
Given the board’s focus on offering local school districts more flexibility and additional support, Houchens said he’s felt “dismayed” by criticisms that the state school board is a foe to public education.
“It’s a real frustration,” Houchens said.
Beshear vowed during his campaign to reorganize the state school board and replace it with one that prioritizes public education over charter schools. As attorney general, Beshear took Bevin to court for actions he took in 2017 to reorganize several state education boards, with the Kentucky Supreme Court ultimately deciding in Bevin’s favor.
Faced with the prospect of Beshear reorganizing Kentucky’s Board of Education on day one of his term, Houchens said the move would be “unprecedented.”
A governor removing board members before the end of their terms would “politicize” the governance of K-12 education in Kentucky, Houchens said, thus disrupting the board’s long-standing insulation from such matters. While he acknowledged board members are appointed by the governor, they work for the people of Kentucky, he said.
He worried the move could set the wrong precedent and argued that Kentuckians don’t want that system.
“I hope that we don’t wind up with it,” Houchens said.