Charter schools, by House Bill 9 definition, are privately-run schools funded by taxpayer dollars. In essence, the tax dollars that fund a child’s education will travel with the child to the public school or charter school of choice. Charter schools are often lauded, particularly in larger cities and counties, as the solution to local underperforming public schools: a performance based largely on standardized test scores. Many proponents of school choice believe that the competition for students will “shake up” that performance, thus leading to better testing results for all students.
Specifically, charter schools have been championed by legislators as a way to provide equity in educational opportunities and alternatives for economically disadvantaged and minority families in areas with larger populations such as Jefferson County and Fayette County Public Schools. In contrast, public education has been under attack for the last several years, leaving many to not understand the reality of all that public schools, in general, and Anderson County, in particular, has to offer.
The recent COVD-19 pandemic had a significant impact on what public education looked like, leaving many feeling angry and frustrated. First, I’d like to say, I understand the frustration of the pandemic and all that it brought including parents and guardians teaching from home, the isolation and fears resulting from the pandemic, and the constant mandates and changes. Anderson County Public Schools worked really hard to keep as much normalcy for students, families, and staff as possible. In-person school, virtual, and a blended learning model were offered for students and families, giving everyone a choice. Anderson County Schools were in-session holding in-person classes more than any other district across the commonwealth. Our hope was that this concentrated effort toward normalcy helped students and families during the most difficult times. But public schools may soon be facing yet another battle for normalcy.
House Bill 9 is a charter bill that threatens public education’s opportunity to continue to offer many strong, high-quality academic, athletic, and arts and humanities experiences for all students. While charter schools may work in large cities, the research shows public schools in smaller communities lose the programs that provide many opportunities for students, particularly when funding is filtered out to support public charter schools.
The pandemic gave us a challenge to keep students engaged, communicate strongly, and to keep students on track academically in the hardest of circumstances. But what has Anderson County Schools been able to offer our students, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles? The answer is: a lot.
Anderson County Schools provide a variety of academic options to boost students’ future success. We have a strong tradition of high academic performance, shown in one way via our nationally competitive AP pass rates. Students in these courses not only complete college-level work but have found a voice by yearly lobbying state legislators to ask for continued funding for these challenging courses. Such actions of personal advocacy prove that these students are truly ready to enter any competitive college across the country. Partnering with BCTC, our high school provides multiple dual credit courses offered on and off campus and provide yet another avenue for the students in Anderson County to gain college experience before they graduate. Those courses even allow some students to earn an associate's degree while simultaneously earning their high school diploma. This partnership with BCTC gives our students low-cost college credit and allows them to enter college ahead of their peers in college credit hours. Furthermore, our regional training center, Trailblazer Academy, offers career and technical courses such as welding, carpentry, nursing, and electricity. Students interested in these career paths have the opportunity to train and participate in apprenticeships to prepare for or explore these career fields. Educational options like those mentioned give our students a direct connection for job opportunities right out of high school.
Additionally, the arts, extracurricular opportunities, and athletic programs available in our schools are among the state's best, resulting in scholarships and experiences that students will remember for a lifetime. Our exceptional arts, music, and drama programs (with multiple regional and state appearances and titles) provide many students the experience of competing and performing in regional, state, and national competitions, again preparing them for future studies and careers. What’s more, our district’s students participate in Governor Scholar programs alongside other talented students across the nation in academics, music, and arts. The extra-curricular opportunities our schools are able to offer include clubs such as FCCLA and FFA, both of which present students with opportunities such as agriculture experience projects that can result in entrepreneurial careers. To illustrate, one Anderson County High School graduate, Taylor Cook, created Taylor Belle’s Ice Cream business for an FFA state competition. As for our athletic programs, our numerous regional, state, and national competitions and experiences furnish our students with the opportunity to continue their education using their athletic talents, to earn scholarships, and to experience a high level of competition even before they graduate.
Parents might not realize the other options provided by Anderson County Public schools-- options that, for some, make charter schools appealing. For example, parents who wish to educate their children at home now have the option to keep their students in our public schools while having the autonomy to control and guide the education of their children personally. Parents wishing to home school their students can do so while continuing to also afford their students the opportunity to participate in any of our curricular and extracurricular programs by enrolling their students into the Anderson County Schools’ virtual learning program. Parents choosing this option can take advantage of these tax-supported resources in the homeschool setting by utilizing the online programs offered by the district as part of their homeschool curriculum.
In comparison, research on charter schools as an alternative finds mixed success-- some good and some bad, much like any experience in public or private schools.The question is, how will a charter school provide special education services, gifted and talented services, and all the same experiences and opportunities provided in the public school? Unfortunately, these are the questions we must be asking ourselves since splintering the funding between public schools and their charter school counterparts weakens the opportunity for providing many of the high-quality programs, experiences, and opportunities currently provided.
Public schools are not perfect. We come with a high price tag at times and deal with many negative actions such as school-level student discipline, mistakes made by staff, and challenges provided through legislation, as well as state and federal mandates. The proposal of eliminating the barrel tax in bourbon districts adds to this concern. The threat of losing funding from so many avenues causes great concern when it comes to providing our existing high-quality education and opportunities. Even charter school proponents understand that school choice will drain funding from public schools, whose budgets do not change-- often leaving public schools struggling to find ways to meet budgetary demands and forcing school boards to face difficult choices on how to meet those demands: close an elementary school and increase class size in the remaining schools? Raise taxes to meet the necessary budget? Or cut extra-curricular programs and offerings? Those are even more difficult questions.
One thing is sure: reducing funding means cutting the existing budget. Public school funding currently uses 95% of the budget to provide salaries, benefits, student services, food service, upkeep of schools and facilities, and transportation. The aftermath of the pandemic also leaves public schools needing additional support for student behavior, academic support, and overall additional funding to meet the educational needs of our students. Losing funding to public charter schools will provide yet another challenge to keeping the existing opportunities in place for students.
What research shows is that the promise to “shake up” education and improve school performance across the board by introducing charter schools is seldom the reality. Instead, the takeaway from a CREDO study published in a 2019 Brookings article about whether charter schools deliver on educational improvement, notes that, generally speaking, charter schools “perform about the same as their matched peers in the traditional public schools.” Corroborating this research, Zachary Jason’s article “The Battle Over Charter Schools,” published by Harvard University, stated that even after over 25 years of charter schools in operation in our nation, the academic results of charter schools are still on par with the very public schools they attempt to outperform. In summary, in an article published by Spectrum News, journalist Adam Raymond cited education researcher Dr. Eve Ewing and her interview with The New York Times: “After two generations of research, scholars have repeatedly asked, ‘Do charters work?’ and the answer is a resounding: ‘Sometimes! It depends!’”
Here in Anderson County, that kind of uncertainty when it comes to what’s best for our students doesn’t sit well with us. We want to ensure that ALL students who walk into our school are provided with the tools and the guidance they need to be successful. Coupled with daily intervention, special education services, gifted and talented programs, and extended school services, public schools in Anderson County provide an opportunity for all students' individual needs whether they be academic, emotional, behavioral, or social. We are determined to provide the opportunity for all students to excel in any area they pursue as their individual talents.