A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Pruitt: Charter schools coming to state, approval should begin with local board of education

By Brad Hughes
Kentucky School Boards Association

Commissioner of Education Stephen L. Pruitt said that he believes charter schools are in Kentucky’s immediate future, and that “definitions” spelled out in any law coming out of the 2017 General Assembly will be critically important.

He also said Kentucky will take advantage of a U.S. Department of Education (USED) decision last week to give states more time to craft school accountability systems that match the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In addition to taking more time to “get it right,” the commissioner said he wants to explore including a locally crafted progress measure into the system now being developed by collaborating advisory panels working with Kentucky Department of Education staff.

Charter schools

In a wide-ranging, 70-minute give-and-take with the KSBA Board of Directors in Louisville Friday, Pruitt reaffirmed his position that, if charter schools are allowed in Kentucky, the first stop in a selection process of candidates should be the local board of education.

pruitt charter

“You should be ready. I think they are coming. There’s a lot of momentum (for charter school legislation in the GOP-controlled legislature in 2017),” he said. “In a state like Kentucky, we’ve got to figure out what we mean by ‘charters.’ The definition of charters in most states would not fit here, because we are very local- control here.

“I’ve seen some really good things happen with charters and some really bad things,” said Pruitt, who oversaw regulation of charter schools when he worked with the Georgia Department of Education. “That doesn’t mean I’m out banging the gong for charters. It just means this is not new to me.”

The commissioner, who crafted the framework of last week’s day-long Kentucky Board of Education work session on how charter schools function elsewhere in the country, repeated a prediction he made at the conclusion of that meeting: a critical unknown is what entities will “authorize” charters.

“I’ve said all along that I believe it needs to start with local boards,” Pruitt said. “I believe that local boards need to have, depending on your perspective, the right of first approval or the right of first refusal. I think it has to start with you guys with an appeals process involved.

“I think the idea of authorizers is going to be a really big point in the legislation,” he said. “Who is it that grants the charter? Is it going to be the local board? Is it going to be the state board? Are they going to create a whole new board for charters? In other states, there is a whole host of people who can authorize – universities, mayors. If there are going to be multiple authorizers, there either needs to be somebody who regulates the authorizers or the law has to be pretty clear this is the how you get (a charter) and what happens if you lose one. Whoever authorizes has to have the courage to withdraw the charter. That’s going to be tough.”

Asked by a KSBA board member why charter schools should be freed from regulations that would still be required of regular public schools, Pruitt said districts already can seek waivers from many rules.

“The key tenets of charters are already here in Kentucky. What regulations are there that we don’t already have (opportunities for districts to request relief from)? You could come to me today with certain things that are on the books and say, ‘Can we do things a different way?’” the commissioner said.

“My thing is that I don’t want charter schools to become such a discussion topic that we lose sight of why we should be talking about charters or releasing regulations for public school districts. The issue is that we have kids in our schools who are not being taught. We have to put the kids first,” he said.

Accountability system

Pruitt expressed extreme pleasure that USED announced last week that states would be given more time to complete adoption of accountability systems to mirror requirements of the ESSA law that replaces the No Child Left Behind federal statute.

Currently, KDE has myriad panels dissecting Kentucky’s existing Unbridled Learning system. The original target of having a draft out for public review in November didn’t happen. So Pruitt welcomed the Washington, D.C. decision.

“Basically we were at a point a few weeks ago when we really had to make a decision on whether either we take more time – and in my opinion, have a better chance of getting it right – or we just throw it out together and put it out. I admit I just sort of rolled the dice. If they had come out and said we didn’t get more time, we wouldn’t have made the deadline and would have been deficient,” he said. “We decided we were going to extend our deadline no matter what USED did. They’ve pushed the timeline back. We can actually see that it is about quality and not the timeline.”

In the midst of the process of developing a new accountability system, Pruitt said he’s become “very interested” in a new idea that was broached recently.

“What if we allowed a local measure in what we call ‘Big A accountability’? Districts could have a strategic plan in which you said, ‘Hey our middle school math isn’t good enough. Over the next three years, we’re going to do these things.’ And that is something you would contribute to the accountability system instead of it coming from Frankfort,” he said. “If you wanted to do something special with the arts, that was really meaningful toward a child’s experience, it would give you that opportunity to do that.”

“We’ve got a real job ahead of us in helping people understand that the days of ‘If it’s not tested, it’s not taught’ have got to end,” Pruitt said. “Every day, we have conversations about ‘Big A accountability versus Little A accountability.’ In other words, what are things districts are going to get a rating on versus what are the things we’re going to report out but are not part of that rating? And how do you make the ‘Little A’ matter? But we can’t keep on saying, ‘Well, yeah, arts are important. We promise. They really are. But we not going to teach it in elementary school because we’ve got to teach reading.’ We’ve got to start thinking that way,” the commissioner said.

In addition to having a Local School Board Member Advisory Panel, Pruitt meets regularly during the year with the KSBA board. Friday’s meeting was part of the association’s Winter Symposium professional development conference for district leaders.

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