New bills filed in the Missouri legislature would improve the quality and increase accountability of existing charter schools while expanding them beyond Saint Louis and Kansas City—the only two areas charters currently are allowed in the state.
Compared with states such as Minnesota and California, Missouri has a small number of students attending charters. But supporters suggest the 20,000 Missouri students enrolled in charters just in those two cities indicate the potential for growth if Senate Bill 576 and House version HB 1228 pass.
“If charter schools can help students in St. Louis and Kansas City, why can’t charter schools help students in Springfield and Columbia?” asked Show-Me Institute policy analyst Audrey Spalding.
Accountability is as important as expanding access and numbers, Spalding said.
“As we saw with the Imagine Schools debacle in 2011, it is critical to have an active and engaged sponsor willing to close failing charter schools,” she said.
Mayor Francis Slay called for the six Imagine charter schools in St. Louis to close after the Post-Dispatch published a series of articles showing convoluted real estate deals fueled the schools’ national management company while the firm failed to provide students with textbooks and supplies, holding some classes in hallways. The schools’ performance on state standardized exams was also “worse than any school district in Missouri,” said the report.
Strengthening accountability measures for existing and future charter schools while providing more Missouri parents with access to charters is the right combination, said Earl Simms, communications director for the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA).
“We seek quality expansion, not just expansion for the sake of expansion,” Simms said.
The legislation “will help families with children trapped in failing schools, who cannot afford to send their children to private schools,” Spalding said. “It’s important to close failing schools, whether they are traditional public schools or charter schools. It does no one any good to keep a school that fails its students open.”
New Accountability Measures
The bills would require a performance contract between each charter school and its sponsor, which would be used to assess the school’s performance and prospects for renewal. The appeals process following decisions to close charters would be moved from state courts to the state Board of Education.
The board has balked at this idea in the past because current law gives it sponsorship of charters when their sponsor’s right is revoked, and the board does not have the capacity to manage charters. The legislation would address this by creating the Missouri Charter Public School Commission to fulfill this function.
Debate Over Omnibus Approach
Some lawmakers say they want to see the charter school provisions included in an omnibus bill with other education issues, including changes to the state’s school funding formula, tax credit scholarship programs, and student-transfer policies. Simms said such an approach would diminish the charter bills’ chances.
“Any time a bill takes on more weight legislatively, it becomes more difficult to pass,” he said. “The provisions in these bills are needed legislation to solve current problems in Missouri’s charter school law that was enacted over a decade ago.”
The charter-school legislation is particularly urgent because Missouri fell five spots in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual rankings of state charter laws by not passing legislation last session, Simms noted.
“Other states are more rapidly embracing charter schools as a public education option and are moving ahead of Missouri in the sector,” he said.
Main Provisions of Missouri SB 576
- Requires charter-school sponsors be evaluated every three years using standards endorsed by the State Board of Education.
- Allows private Kansas City universities to sponsor charters, as they already can in St. Louis.
- Makes some nonprofit groups and two-year vocational and technical schools eligible to sponsor charter schools.
- Removes the restriction that colleges and universities have their primary campus in the school district or a county adjacent to the county in which the district is located.
- Increases charter sponsors’ access to closed school-district facilities.
Image by Christopher Michel.