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Charter Schools in Kentucky

Bill and his guests discuss charter schools. Guests: Wayne Lewis, former chair of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association; Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association; Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions; and Jessica Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association.
Season 23 Episode 8 Length 56:33 Premiere: 01/11/16


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

After broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Are Charter Schools Right for Kentucky?

Are charter schools the prescription for lingering academic achievement problems in Kentucky’s public classrooms? Or would charters be an unnecessary competitor that would take the best students and much needed funding away from traditional schools?

Four education advocates appeared on Monday’s Kentucky Tonight on KET to debate the merits of charters and what the schools could mean for the state’s students and parents.

What is a Charter School?
The definition of a charter varies from state to state depending on the enabling legislation used to create them. Generally, though, a charter is a publicly funded school that is freed from certain academic regulations and granted greater latitude to employ new or innovative teaching strategies in return for meeting certain student achievement criteria and other measures.

“We believe that if we’re going to hold teachers and administrators accountable for their [students’] performance, they also need to have the flexibility and freedom to do whatever is necessary to achieve that,” says Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, which supports the charter concept.

Charters have been in existence for about 25 years, and were designed to offer parents in communities with under-performing traditional schools another option for educating their children. More than 40 states now allow charter schools.

Gov. Matt Bevin made bringing charters to Kentucky a key platform of his campaign, and Republicans in the state General Assembly have promoted the idea in recent legislative sessions. A proposal being floated in Frankfort would create several pilot charter schools in Jefferson and Fayette counties.

Who Attends Charter Schools?
In most cases charters are open to any student in that district. Waters says that nationally, just over half of charter school students come from low-income or minority families.

Parents apply to have their child enrolled at a charter; if applications exceed capacity, schools will often have a lottery to select which children are accepted.

“Charter school students get to charter schools because their parents choose to dis-enroll them from traditional public schools and enroll them in charter schools,” says Wayne Lewis, former chair of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association. “I don’t know too many parents who dis-enroll their children from schools where they’re satisfied with the quality of education their children are getting just to try something new.”

Charter critics argue that the schools often enroll only the best students, leaving traditional public schools with a higher percentage of under-performing students.

“If we allow these charter schools to cherry-pick the students … then you create a situation where the traditional public schools become a dumping ground for the charter school students that have been rejected, or for the students whose parents are not engaged and aren’t able to avail themselves of those opportunities,” says Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

McKim also contends that some charters weed out lower-performing students as they advance in grade level so that charters can claim higher graduation rates than they actually might have.

Does Kentucky Need Charter Schools?
Charter advocates say the schools are needed here because of persistent achievement gaps between groups of students (usually based on race or socio-economic factors) and because some public schools are chronically academically deficient.

“Contrary to popular belief, we actually do not have failing schools in Kentucky,” says Fayette County Education Association President Jessica Hiler. “Our schools have continued to increase in the quality counts … [so] what’s the reason for charter schools? There doesn’t seem to be a need for it or appetite for it because what we’re doing here is working for our kids.”

Hiler acknowledges that there are schools with significant performance and achievement gap problems. But she says the tools already exist to address those issues. She points to her district’s William Wells Brown Elementary, which was the state’s lowest performing elementary school in 2013-14. But now, with the involvement of teachers, administrators, and parents, Hiler says the school’s test scores have risen 20 points in one year. She says schools simply need the time, funding, and community involvement to make these changes.

Kentucky has several charter-like schools, such as the Carter G. Woodson Academy in Lexington, which primarily serves African-American boys in grades 6 to 12, and the Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University, which caters to students interested in the STEM disciplines. But the waiting list to get into those schools can be lengthy. Wayne Lewis says that shows how traditional schools aren’t able to meet the demand that parents have for more high quality educational options for their children.

Another consideration is that the state already has a mechanism whereby traditional schools can apply for waivers to certain administrative regulations so they can try new teaching techniques.

“We have a lot of flexibility available under the Districts of Innovation Law,” says JCTA’s Brent McKim. “We can use that to innovate in our public schools without having to turn to charter schools.”

McKim says the districts of innovation policy should be expanded to add flexibility to student assessments so that children can be taught and tested in what he calls more hands-on, real-world ways.

What Problems Can Charters Encounter?
In addition to student selection and retention concerns, McKim is leery of charters because he says they can lack controls on spending and contracts that regulate traditional schools. He says what charter school proponents see as red tape is actually appropriate oversight and accountability that can prevent scandals and abuse.

McKim also worries about whether schools will be operated as non-profit, public institutions with open meetings and other transparency requirements, or if they will be run by for-profit companies that are more secretive.

Wayne Lewis says all of those issues can be addressed in the enabling legislation and in the regulations that would govern charter school operators. He says Kentucky lawmakers can look to the other states that already have charters, review their laws, and integrate the most effective and successful provisions into a charter school bill that will work uniquely well for students here.

“I would be a vocal opponent of the passage of charter legislation that would not give charter schools the opportunity to be successful in Kentucky,” Lewis says.

What’s the Bottom Line?
With public education still struggling from funding cuts during the recession, and a lean budget expected for the new biennium, can the state afford to create a new of system of schools under the charter concept?

Lewis and Jim Waters agree that charter schools are not a panacea. But they say the state can’t afford not to embrace them, especially in districts like Jefferson and Fayette counties, where achievement gaps between white and black students in reading can reach 30 percentage points. Waters claims charters do a better job helping poor and minority students, and that makes them worthy of funding.

“We believe that money should follow the child to the place where they can get the best education,” says Waters. “The greatest accountability is the fact that these schools are chosen by parents who believe that this is the best educational option for their children.”

Jessica Hiler of the Fayette County Education Association acknowledges the academic challenges that remain in her system. But she contends taking money away from already cash-strapped traditional public schools isn’t the answer.

“It’s a basic funding issue when schools are underfunded,” Hiler says. “If we don’t have the funds to do what we need to do in Fayette County, the same funds that are going to go to a charter school, how can we create more options?”

amgrad3KET’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Season 23 Episodes

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U.S. Foreign Policy Issues

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Impact of Campaign Finance Laws

S23 E34 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/22/16

The Electoral College and Politics

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Debate Over Jobs and Wages

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S23 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/23/16

2016 Primary Election Preview

S23 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/16/16

Democratic U.S. Senate Primary

S23 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/09/16

Republican U.S. Senate Primary Candidate

S23 E22 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 05/02/16

Republican 1st District Congressional Candidates

S23 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/25/16

Democratic 1st District Congressional Candidate

S23 E20 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 04/18/16

Democratic 6th District Congressional Candidates

S23 E19 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 04/11/16

Republican 6th District Congressional Candidates

S23 E17 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 03/28/16

Republican 3rd Congressional District Candidates

S23 E16 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 03/21/16

2016 General Assembly at Midpoint

S23 E15 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/29/16

Negotiations on State Budget

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Crafting New Education Policy

S23 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/15/16

Debating the Minimum Wage

S23 E12 Length 56:31 Premiere Date 02/08/16

Assessing the Governor's Budget

S23 E11 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/01/16

Felony Records Expungement

S23 E10 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/25/16

Right to Work and Prevailing Wage

S23 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/18/16

Charter Schools in Kentucky

S23 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/11/16

Major Issues Await Legislature

S23 E7 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/04/16

Solving the State Pension Crisis

S23 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/14/15

Preparing for the 2016 General Assembly

S23 E4 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/23/15

Priorities for the State Budget

S23 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/16/15

Election Analysis

S23 E2 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/09/15

What's at Stake in the 2015 Election?

S23 E1 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/02/15

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2024 Legislative Session Preview - S30 E33

Renee Shaw hosts a 2024 legislative session preview. Scheduled guests: State Representative Chad Aull (D-Lexington); State Representative Stephanie Dietz (R-Edgewood); State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville); and State Senator Amanda Mays Bledsoe (R- Lexington). A 2023 KET production.

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Kentucky Tonight - S30 E34

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2024 Legislative Session Preview - S30 E33

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2024 Legislative Preview - S30 E32

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2023 Election - S30 E31

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