In Depth: Kentucky Vying For More Education Funds

Kentucky received encouraging news this week regarding its second bid for federal Race to the Top dollars. But some say the state’s application still may be lacking in one key area.

Click below to hear the story:

Audio MP3

In the early days of the 2010 General Assembly, state lawmakers rushed to approve Kentucky’s application for federal Race to the Top dollars. The $4 billion program provides states with hefty, financial incentives to improve persistently, low-achieving schools. The legislature’s Republican leaders wanted Kentucky’s application to include charter schools, but a bill to that effect quickly died in the Senate Education Committee. The deciding vote was cast by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington.

“It seems like the media always speculates that we have to vote rank and file,” said Kerr. “But actually, we don’t! We have minds of our own and we are able to vote what we feel is best for this state as a whole, but also for our district.”

The vote pleased House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, who’s not a big fan of charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, but are freed from some state regulations in exchange for greater accountability.

“In 17 percent of the cases, the students do better in charter schools,” said Rollins. “In 37 percent of the cases, they do worse than they would in public schools. And in 46 percent of the cases, there’s no significant difference.”

The next day, after Kentucky’s Race to the Top application received unanimous House and Senate approval, Gov. Beshear signed the document in ceremonies at the State Capitol.

“Here we are already celebrating what happens when political parties and personalities are set aside to work together on the policies that help the people of this state,” said Beshear.

That was in mid-January. In March, Kentucky learned it was one of 16 finalists in the Race to the Top competition. But in April, Tennessee and Delaware were declared the first-round winners and awarded $600 million. In May, with a second Race to the Top deadline looming, Gov. Beshear prepared to call a special session on the state’s budget impasse. He pondered whether charter schools should also be on the agenda.

“We’re all interested in getting $175 million of federal money to help improve our education system,” said Beshear. “So, I want to explore this issue to see if there is any room to move in that direction.”

But when the call for the special session was issued, charter schools were not on the agenda. Despite the omission, Kentucky – along with 17 other states and the District of Columbia – was again named a finalist in the Race to the Top.

“I think it’s good news that our application is still very strong,” said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday (pictured). “And we get to go and make our case, and they’ll probably pick 12 out of the 19 for actual funding.”

But Holliday still wishes Kentucky’s application contained charter schools.

“We’re just going to have to do the best we can and really do a great presentation when we go to D.C., and try to overcome the charter school issue because schools and school systems in Kentucky sure need this shot in the arm right now,” said Holliday.

Next month, Holliday travels to Washington to reinforce the state’s bid for Race to the Top dollars. And remarks made by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as Duncan announced the 19 finalists, may bode well for Kentucky. While calling for cooperation between education reformers and unions, Duncan made it clear charter schools are not a panacea for all that ails public schools.

“If unions were the only problem, then in all of our Right to Work states and all of our charter schools, they’d be outperforming the nation, and we know that’s not the case,” Duncan told the National Press Club in Washington.

States that prevail in the second, and possibly final round of Race to the Top, will split $3.4 billion. The winners will be announced in September.