Kansas has never been known as a hotbed of charter schools.
But new figures from the Kansas State Department of Education show that the number of charter schools — quasi-independent schools that receive public funding but are usually managed by outside boards or private companies — is rapidly declining in Kansas, with only 11 still operating this year.
That's down from 15 last year, and 33 as recently as 2010.
Jessica Noble, who coordinates charter and virtual school programs for the state, provided those numbers to the State Board of Education last week. She said the main reason for the decline is that school districts are choosing to convert the charter schools back into regular schools.
That was the case in the Humboldt school district in Allen County, where the district's elementary school was converted to a charter school a few years ago, mainly so it could obtain grant funds to buy computers and equipment to provide technology-enhanced education. This year, the school district converted it back to a regular elementary school.
In search of grant money
“The state of Kansas had gotten some money from the federal government, and they were giving out some grants,” said Humboldt Elementary principal Kay Bolt. “We were one of the recipients. I went to a workshop that had discussed different ways you could get a grant and I wrote one ... to enhance what we were already doing.”
“We didn't make changes to our curriculum except the purchase of computers and using more project-based learning,” Bolt said. “What we looked at was utilizing more of the technology to enhance what the teachers were already teaching and use more projects within the classroom.”
In other cases, Noble said, districts that had been operating virtual schools as charter schools have decided to give up their charters and fold those schools into existing schools and operate them as virtual “programs.”
Lawrence Virtual School, which provides online education for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is now one of only three such charter-virtual schools left in the state, Noble said. Lawrence also operates a virtual high school, which is not a charter school.
But Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll has said that as the district expands technology in all of its buildings and begins focusing on “blended learning” — a combination of online and traditional teacher-led instruction — Lawrence may consider folding its virtual schools back into its traditional schools.
"Not real charters"
Supporters of charter schools say the recent decline is unique to Kansas and is not occurring elsewhere in the nation. They say that's because Kansas has one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the nation, noting that the ones here really aren't “charter schools” at all. Charter schools elsewhere generally are run more independently of local schools.
“The problem you're seeing in Kansas is they're not real charters, because they're still run and managed by the school district that has not done the greatest in running their own schools,” said Kara Kerwin, spokeswoman for the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., a non-profit organization that promotes charter schools.
Under Kansas law, petitions to open a charter school must be approved by the local school district. The applications then must be approved by the Kansas State Board of Education, and the local school district retains control over the charter school.
Charter school supporters say they are intended to provide competition to the public school system, offering an alternative that uses different management and a different educational approach.
“When charter schools can operate in the way they're intended, and not the way they are operated or approved in Kansas, we see extreme growth,” Kerwin said. “We see academic achievement across the board. We also see that when you've got a healthy, robust charter school movement, all schools improve, including our traditional public schools.”
But supporters of traditional schools say the data supporting that is unclear. At best, they say, charter schools offer an alternative for some students, but siphon off public funds that could be used to improve all schools.
“What works to be effective can work in a public school or a charter school,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “There's no real mystery about what it is. We should work to make all our schools successful rather than just taking care of these little pockets.”
Two bills were introduced in the Kansas Legislature this past year that would have expanded the scope of the state's charter school program. Neither bill made it out of committee and onto the floor of the House or Senate.