State Senate President Susan Wagle told a Wichita Republican club Friday that she wants to push ahead with expanding charter schools in the state after the Supreme Court rules on a pending school-finance lawsuit.
Wagle, R-Wichita, said charter schools – which generally operate on public funding but with more independence from regulation than regular public schools – could provide an education as good as or better than public schools at a lower cost to taxpayers.
“We have a very narrow charter-school law,” Wagle told the Wichita Pachyderm Club. “Those who have creative ideas and have successful ways to educate students for less money, they can’t operate within Kansas. We need to broaden our charter school law at the state level so we can have some alternative schools for these kids to go to.”
In Legislative hearings, opponents of charter schools have argued that independent charter operators could cherry-pick the best students to boost their test scores, while sticking the public schools with lower-achieving students who are harder to teach. In addition, they expressed concern that charter schools could undercut public education by diverting needed resources and employing uncredentialed teachers.
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Bills to allow more charter schools and relieve them from school district oversight have been introduced in both houses of the Legislature, but are currently parked in committee.
The holdup, Wagle said, is the Gannon vs. State of Kansas lawsuit challenging whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide “suitable” funding for public schools. A three-judge panel ruled the state is falling short, but the state has appealed the case to the Kansas Supreme Court.
“This year, because of this dark cloud that’s been hanging above us – the Gannon lawsuit – the district court said we could in no way change the (school funding) formula,” Wagle said. “And we felt restricted in that we didn’t want to go to court with making maybe big changes in our educational system.”
That will likely change once the court case is decided, she said.
“We wanted to hear what the Supreme Court rules and then we want to react,” Wagle said. “I believe you will see some reform measures after this ruling comes down and you’re going to find a very active Legislature in responding to this court case.”
Kansas has 15 charter schools, but unlike charters in other parts of the country, they operate under direct supervision of the local school district. The closest ones to Wichita are Walton Rural Life Center in Harvey County and Yoder Charter Elementary School, which serves a predominantly Amish community in Reno County.
Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district, said allowing independent charters closer to the city could conflict with the district’s efforts to offer a wide variety of learning environments within the public sphere, including magnet schools geared to preparing students for specific career fields and traditional schools built around back-to-basics education and strict discipline.
“Wichita public schools offer the greatest amount of choice in the state,” Gjerstad said. “The richest part of our choice in Wichita is our magnet schools. If magnet schools were created today, they’d probably be called charter schools.”