Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

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