June 5 2012
Vicki E. Alger
The Missouri legislature has passed its first major piece of charter school legislation since its first in 1998: Senate Bill 576 would allow charter schools to open statewide and make it easier to close poor-performing ones.
Missouri currently allows charter schools only in St. Louis and Kansas City, which enroll 20,000 students in the struggling districts. This legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stouffer (R-Napton), would allow freestanding charter schools to open in unaccredited school districts or those that have been provisionally accredited for up to three years. It would also allow district-sponsored charter schools statewide.
“It is important that all of Missouri’s families have an opportunity to choose the public educational option best for their children. This legislation will provide more families across the state access to quality charter schools held accountable to high standards of academic performance and operational management,” said Missouri Public Charter Schools Association Executive Director Douglas Thaman.
The bill now sits on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk, where he must sign it by July 14 for it to go into effect on August 28. In his January state of the state address, the Democrat called on the legislature to pass a charter school accountability bill.
“S.B. 576 is a step in the right direction,” said Audrey Spalding, Show-Me Institute policy analyst. She said the state should consider allowing charters to open in every school district without local school board approval to create a more innovative education climate.
High Bar for Performance
If Nixon signs the legislation, more Missouri universities and colleges could sponsor charter schools, and so could a new Missouri Charter Public School Commission. All would operate under the same charter authorizing requirements. Similar commissions exist in other states to help meet the high demand for charter schools and ensure high-quality charter schools can open.
“The purpose of charter schools [is] to identify and reward schools that help students, while closing down schools that consistently fail students,” Spalding said. “If only we held our traditional public schools as accountable.”
Under SB 576, charter schools would be required to sign performance contracts with their sponsors, a major component of their renewal. Charter school sponsors would also be evaluated every three years by the State Board of Education or any time for cause. The board would have to approve new sponsors individually.
“Missouri’s charter schools work tirelessly every day toward a high-quality public education for students from very diverse backgrounds,” Thaman said. “Missouri’s charter school community welcomes the increased autonomy for increased accountability bargain that is at the heart of the charter school model.”
Limits to Growth
Missouri’s charter school legislation is likely to expand the number of charter schools in the state, Spalding said, but not dramatically.
In addition to Missouri’s three unaccredited districts, which include St. Louis and Kansas City, it has nine provisionally accredited districts. This means S.B. 576 would allow charters to open in 10 more districts of Missouri’s 522 districts.
“The large majority of Missouri students will not have the option of attending a charter school,” Spalding said.
Earlier in 2012, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found apparent financial mismanagement in some St. Louis charter schools. The Commissioner of Education intervened to make a sponsor close charter schools with poor average test scores in St. Louis.
The legislation aims to stop such practices but the increased paperwork required to open and operate new schools “may end up overburdening charter schools, making them less effective,” said Spalding.
Legislators hope they have met a balance between freedom and fraud.
“[The bill] will make sure there is transparency and openness and will give students a better chance at succeeding,” said Rep. Tishaura Jones (D-St. Louis City).