In Depth: Officials React To "Race To The Top" Exclusion

Reaction was swift to word that Kentucky has again failed to snare federal Race to the Top dollars. 

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In mid-January, lawmakers were rushing to approve Kentucky’s Race to the Top application.  That’s a federal stimulus program pitting states against each other for $4 billion in school improvement funds. 

Republican leaders in the legislature wanted Kentucky’s application to include charter schools, but a bill to that effect died on a tie vote in Senate committee.  Casting the deciding vote against charter schools was Republican Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington.

“I just felt like it was time that we didn’t need to be looking into which districts were going to come onboard with this, and which ones were not,” said Kerr. 

Charter schools are publicly funded, but are freed from some state regulations in exchange for greater accountability.  Despite omitting them from its application, Kentucky became a first round finalist in the Race to the Top.  But in March, the Obama Administration announced only two states – Tennessee and Delaware – would share $600 million.  That left another $3.4 billion for states to fight over. 

In May, with a second federal deadline looming, Gov. Beshear summoned lawmakers to Frankfort for a special session on the budget.  Democratic Rep. Harry Moberly of Richmond was among lawmakers urging Beshear to add charter schools to the agenda. 

“Which would get us about $175 million, not to mention the $300 or $400 million that’s available through private foundations,” said Moberly.

But the governor balked, saying there was no general agreement on the issue.

“We also want to try to make this special session as short as possible,” said Beshear.

But again, with charter schools still absent, Kentucky emerged a finalist in the Race to the Top.  However, when the second round’s ten winners were announced, Kentucky was not on the list.

“We got zero points for charter schools, so we were at a 32 point deficit even before the judging began,” said state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday (pictured).

“That’s kind of what I’ve been telling everybody – that this particular pot of money did require charter school legislation,” said Holliday.

Senate President David Williams is disappointed with Kentucky’s failed effort, and plans to keep fighting for charter schools.

“In extremely difficult economic times that money would have been very useful in implementation of Senate Bill 1 – and in order to make sure that we address some of the pressing education issues that we have in the state,” said Williams.

But Sharon Oxendine of the Kentucky Education Association has no regrets over the group’s opposition to charter schools.  She says Kentucky schools already include charter school concepts, thanks to the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.

“They’re autonomous,” said Oxendine.  “They’re in charge of their own hiring.  They’re in charge of their own budgets.  Teachers are certified.  They are accountable.  So, we think site-based council rule, or governing, in the State of Kentucky is far better than charter schools.”

Congressional support for a third round of Race to the Top funding is questionable, and without federal prodding, small, rural states like Kentucky may be less inclined to approve charter schools.  So, is the charter school issue dead in Kentucky?  Gov. Beshear.

“I don’t think so,” said Beshear.  “I think that’s an issue that will be discussed in the future.  And as I’ve said, I think if it’s used properly, it can be a useful tool.”

So, while the debate over charter schools continues to rage in Kentucky – Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia are deciding how to spend $3.4 billion.