Jeff Neal

Jeff Neal

Gov. Matt Bevin’s push for charter schools in Kentucky may just have to wait. In a state with a tight budget, a woefully under-funded pension system and the possibility of actually making cuts to public education, Kentucky can’t afford charter schools.

What exactly are charter schools? They are schools that are exempt from most state standards that govern every other public school. They are governed not by the local school district but a board of directors operating under the authority of a charter. Charter schools often focus on specific learning needs, and advocates say they are crucial to helping those students who have struggled in traditional public schools. But critics say charters weaken public schools by diverting money from them.

Last year, Kentucky made charter schools legal. But the mechanism to pay for them expires at the end of June and Bevin did not include a funding formula in his proposed two-year spending plan.

Republican lawmakers certainly don’t seem to be in a big hurry to address the issue — right now, they have a bigger problem on their hands. Bevin’s budget proposal calls for cuts in funding for school buses. And that has local school districts up in arms.

Literally, local schools would have to rob Peter to pay Paul — stripping money from classroom costs simply to get students to school safely.

A slash to transportation would be a critical hit for Pulaski County Schools. Pulaski County is the third largest county by area in the state and it’s neither easy nor cheap to transport children to and from schools each day. According to Butcher, the district’s 140 buses travel a combined 7,000 miles per school day.

The state typically pays for about 57 percent of the transportation cost, but Bevin wants to reduce the state’s contribution to 25 percent in order to re-direct the money toward shoring up the state’s under-funded public pension systems.

The governor also claims the cut is one way to avoid cuts to SEEK, the funding formula for schools’ operating costs. That will hold steady at $3,981 per student.

But the SEEK formula also includes the transportation payments to school districts — so, in essence, Bevin’s plan is indeed cutting SEEK.

If the legislature approves the reduction, Butcher said Pulaski County will lose about $1.75 million dollars.

“When you put the pencil to paper, the governor’s proposal is like taking $211 (per student) out of our SEEK,” Butcher explained.

“Even leaving SEEK funding stagnate, at $3,981 per student, it’s been flat since 2008 I believe. It does not cost the same thing today to educate a child that it cost 10 years ago,” said Somerset Independent Schools Superintendent Kyle Lively. “So, by staying stagnate, is that in essence a cut in itself?”

Butcher said his board is already paying $4 million from its general fund for transportation — even before the cut. It’s going to be hard to find an extra $1.75 million, he said.

“It’s a juggling act,” he explained. “We’ll have to take a hard look at some of our programs which are in place for students.”

So why push for charters when you are having issues funding public schools?

The answer is simple. You don’t.

"I'm hearing a lot more from how are we going to fix transportation than how are we going to fund charters," Rep. Steven Rudy, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, the legislative panel responsible for crafting the two-year state spending plan, told the Associated Press. "Any charter that wants public money, that would certainly delay those."

In Louisville, whose public school district is one of the largest in the nation, Republicans Sen. Julie Raque Adams and Rep. Jason Nemes sent a letter to teachers vowing that "charter school funding is not a priority, or even a consideration, when the state is facing cuts" to traditional public schools. Both are up for re-election this year.

"If we're talking about cutting funding to those public schools, especially transportation funding to Jefferson County, then we don't have the money to be funding other things like charter schools," Nemes said.

A cut to public school transportation would not only mean altered school programs for our children, but also a hit in our pocketbook. School taxes are bound to rise.

The Pulaski County Board of Education took the allowable 4 percent increase in tax revenues for four consecutive years, but Butcher said the board tried to be sensitive to taxpayers’ concerns last year and passed on the increase.

That’s not likely to happen again if the state cuts keep coming.

Even the legislator who wrote the charter school law last year admits they are not a priority at this point.

"We have to fund our traditional public schools at a level that is appropriate and right now that is our first task," Carney said. "It's a very good chance that charter funding mechanisms may have to wait until the future."

Bevin has already made it clear that pensions for future teachers are not a priority. He would like to strip educators of their pensions altogether and move everyone into a 401K.

That would make teaching our children a much less attractive career option and drive bright teacher prospects away.

By pushing his charter school agenda, Bevin will further strip much-needed funding from our public schools.

Frankly, Bevin doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for public education, or public educators.

It’s up to our lawmakers to send a clear message to the Governor: Our children’s’ education is paramount.

JEFF NEAL is the CJ News Editor and can be reached at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com.

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