State Leaders Discuss the Future of Charter Schools

It has been 25 years since the passage of the first state law authorizing charter schools in Minnesota. On Saturday, Dec. 10 at the 2016 CSG National Conference, three panelists—state government leaders from Kentucky, Massachusetts and North Carolina—reflected on the history of charter schools and discussed visions for the future.

“There are many different types of charter schools,” said Kentucky state Sen. Mike Wilson. The Senate in his state recently passed a law that would create a pilot charter school program.

“New Orleans has a charter school district within the school district itself, and they have six different types of charters,” Wilson said. “It makes a difference how you structure your charter school law.”

Massachusetts state Sen. Marc R. Pacheco agreed, regarding the importance of charter school law structure. “I think it does make a difference how you structure your law, and that’s the difficulty in trying to compare the charters, nationally.”

There are two types of charter schools in Massachusetts: Commonwealth charter schools, which are not part of the existing state school system, and Horace Mann charter schools, which are part of the system and accountable to the state system.

Pacheco said Massachusetts is trying to close gaps to help at-risk students in its charter schools, and he described the system as “woefully and tremendously lopsided.” Pacheco said there are a lot of students who need an advocate who aren’t paying attention to a lottery system for selection of students to attend charter schools.

“We have 25 years now of experience, so we can look back—and when you look back it’s always 20-20—and you can see where the failures are,” he said.

Steven Walker, general counsel and policy director in the North Carolina Office of the Lieutenant Governor, said his state is 80 to 85 percent rural. Students in charters schools have thrived in both rural and urban districts in North Carolina, he said. There has been a push to work on increasing charter schools in rural areas in North Carolina because of those good results.

“We’re doing good in North Carolina when it comes to charters, (but) it’s not perfect,” Walker said. “It’s not perfect. … A state can’t be one size fits all, North Carolina is going to be a little bit different, Massachusetts is going to be a little bit different ... you have to find out what works for your state.”

Walker said there is some difficulty in determining the actual number of economically disadvantaged students, but when it comes to performance, many of these students perform better in charter schools than in traditional public schools.

“See how we’re doing in North Carolina, because we’re doing a good job,” he said.

Wilson said Kentucky is doing just that, looking to North Carolina and other states.

“I think we have the advantage in Kentucky of looking at states that have done this previously, finding out what works well, what doesn’t work well, and one of the things we know is how you structure your law is vitally important,” Wilson said.

In Kentucky, Wilson said, the bill that passed the Senate would give priority registration to students on free or reduced lunch, as well as students in failing schools, and additional slots would be filled by lottery.