It’s time to change the rules on the Kansas charter school law

Lost in the fog of COVID, the Center for Education Reform (CER) released their 2020 national charter school law rankings. To what should be no surprise to anyone, Kansas’s charter school law once again received a grade of F, ranking 45th out of 46 states (including D.C.) that have charter school laws.

All you need to know about why Kansas ranks so low is that despite having a charter school law on the books for a quarter-century (1994 to be exact), there are only 10 public charter schools in the state. And calling them charter schools is disingenuous. All the charters are administered by the district in which they operate and are nothing more than alternative schools within their home districts. Why? Because the law only allows charter schools to be authorized (created and administered) by the school districts in which they operate.

The archaic law keeps real and highly successful charters such as KIPP and BASIS from becoming viable alternatives at a time when parents are seeking more alternatives to traditional public school settings.

Despite evidence that public charter schools outperform traditional public schools, especially given the consistently dismal student achievement scores in the state, efforts to change the law to create more public charter schools have fallen on deaf ears. The political influence wielded by the traditional public-school establishment has been too powerful. Countless attempts at student-centered education are scuttled almost before they are even introduced.

However, given the fallout from COVID-19, it is time for the Legislature to make changes to the law to give parents more choices in their children’s education. According to KSDE, student enrollment for the 2020-21 school year has dropped by about 25,000 from approximately 476,000 to 451,000, the lowest in a decade. That’s 25,000 students who are doing something besides attending (whether in person or distance learning) a traditional public school. Thousands of parents across the state have decided on alternative education paths for their kids.

That’s the kind of political momentum it takes to change a law like the one governing charter schools in Kansas. Obviously, if there is going to be change that allows for greater parental choice, it has to start with changing the way charter schools are authorized.

Kansas is one of eight states that allows only the local school districts to authorize (approve) charter schools. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has identified six ways states across the nation allow charters to be authorized. Besides local school district authorization the other five are:

  • Higher education institution, such as a college or university (16 states)
  • Independent chartering board (17 states)
  • Non-educational government entity (6 states)
  • Non-profit organization (3 states)
  • State education agency (20 states)

Thirty-one states have multiple authorizers. Ohio and Oklahoma have five legal authorizers. Four of the six authorization models are directly tied to existing government structures. Given the power of the government establishment in Kansas – especially the education establishment – it would be imprudent for the Legislature to allow only one or some combination of those four to be the only entities in charge of authorizing public charter schools.

That leaves the independent chartering board and non-profit organizations. The creation of an independent chartering board would be the best path for expanding public school choice through public school charters. NACSA has created an independent chartering board model that could serve as a template for such a board in Kansas. This would not conflict with the Kansas constitution’s requirement that the state board of education have “general supervision of public schools,” since any charter school is a public school. Done properly, it would also protect the constitutional role of local boards of education.

A key to making such an expansion of charter schools a success is for the Legislature to play a major role in who sits on such a board. There will certainly be attempts to quash any effort that is seen as a threat to the education status quo. So, chartering board members will ultimately have the ability to knock down roadblocks.

As a new Legislature readies for the coming session, charter school reform should be at the forefront of the agenda.