Depending on where you live, the term charter school may or may not be familiar. Charter schools have been in existence nationally for almost three decades and started in Missouri in 1998. Until now, charter schools have been limited to only urban areas in the Show-Me State, but some lawmakers want to allow them to operate throughout the state. It’s important to understand what charter schools are, how they compare to local public schools, and what charter school expansion would mean for all Missourians.
What are Charter Schools?
According to Missouri state statutes, charter schools are defined as independent public schools. This means they receive state funding like traditional public schools, but they have far greater freedom to operate and aren’t constrained by all the red tape that traditional public schools have to abide by. In other words, charter schools are publicly financed but are privately operated. In addition, charters are sometimes run by national management organizations and private boards rather than locally-elected school boards under the traditional public-school structure. Proponents say charters offer parents the option to send their child to a different public school, which is tied to the notion of school choice and vouchers – also currently being promoted in Missouri.
Right now, charter schools are allowed only in the state’s major metropolitan areas – St. Louis and Kansas City. They are typically sponsored by a university that has a state-approved teacher education program. These sponsors approve the school’s curriculum, provide guidance, and serve as the gatekeepers for academic quality.
How Do Charter Schools Compare to Traditional Missouri Public Schools?
If you visited a charter school, you may not think it was very different from a traditional public school. At first glance, they’re not – you’d likely see third-graders reading in small groups, middle school students solving math problems, or high schoolers in a science lab. But under the hood, there are some pretty significant variations. For example:
- Teacher Qualifications: In the traditional public school system, all teachers are required to be state-certified (licensed) in the subject and grade levels they’ve been hired for: A high school biology teacher must have a valid Missouri Biology certificate for grades 9-12, while a kindergarten teacher would need to possess a state license in early childhood education (Birth – Grade 3), and so on. Within the charter school system, only 80% of teachers must be appropriately certified to teach in Missouri; the remaining 20% are considered qualified if they are certified in another state or foreign county. While that’s not necessarily a cause for alarm, it’s important to note that licensure requirements can vary greatly from state to state, and even more so internationally.
- Student Enrollment: While traditional public schools are required to accept all students regardless of their ability level, special needs, native language, or other factors, charter schools have the option of being more selective. This can have a big impact on test score averages, graduation rates, and the like.
- Academic Freedom: Charter schools can write their own curriculum and choose to focus on a particular field of study such as the performing arts, college prep, science, leadership, and language immersion. Traditional public schools must provide instructional programs of study across all subject areas as required by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
A Push for Statewide Charter School Expansion
Three bills have been introduced in the Missouri 2019 legislative session so far that promote charter school expansion – HB581, SB51, and SB292. Depending on what’s agreed upon by lawmakers, if charter school expansion is written into state law new schools could be established anywhere in the state. Charter officials would be required to seek the approval of a district’s local school board; if approved that board would serve as the charter school’s sponsor. However, failing to receive approval from a local school board would not actually prevent a new charter school from opening – as long as officials could provide documentation of sufficient community support, they could appeal to the Missouri Charter Public School Commission which would have the authority to (1) approve the charter school’s application and (2) serve as the school’s sponsor.
Potential Implications of Charter School Expansion
Competition Against Traditional Public Schools: Charter school proponents are quick to point out that if our traditional public schools were doing a good job, there wouldn’t be a need for alternative educational programs. It’s market-driven, they say. They point to the fact that many public schools are struggling to maintain their accreditation and some have low graduation rates. They talk about overcrowded classrooms, discipline problems, and the need for more individualized instruction. And in many instances, they’re right. The truth is, we have many public schools that can and should be doing a better job educating students. However, at least some of the problems those schools have stem from a lack of sufficient funding – money to buy new textbooks, maintain working technology, and keep class sizes manageable. Traditional public schools are held accountable for meeting state-mandated levels of performance, regardless of how much funding they receive. Some have even been forced to cut back to a four-day school week just to save money on utilities and transportation. Since charter schools receive state funds, statewide expansion will make the funding problem even worse—there will be more schools drawing from the same pot of money. Traditional school superintendents say this is not the path to school improvement, particularly in districts that are already struggling to pay the bills.
Non-Profit to For-Profit: Right now, charter schools in Missouri must be non-profit organizations. Though it’s not a guarantee of sound fiscal practice, operating as a non-profit requires a certain level of transparency, oversight, and accountability. However, as the wheels of expansion continue, it’s quite possible in the future Missouri could see charter schools run as for-profit businesses. Other states have opened this door with some very mixed results.
Cyber Learning: While most charter schools operate under the typical “brick and mortar” model where students travel to and from campus, some charter schools in other states are virtual – meaning students complete their education online. Teachers could be located in that state, or they could be located across the county or even abroad. Across the nation, many virtual charter schools are run as for-profit businesses while still receiving state funding. Recent research studies have found that virtual charter schools in states such as Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida failed to perform as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts – meaning that they let down the students they served and the parents who sent them there.
Is Charter School Expansion the Answer to Improving Education in Missouri?
It’s true that not all public schools are performing as well as they should – there will always be room for improvement, and we must keep a watchful eye on local school districts to make sure they are providing our children with the best education possible. However, they also need our support. Simply allowing more schools to set up shop and draw state funding without sufficient accountability is not the way to improve our neighborhood schools. It will simply starve them down until our public education system is no longer able to function – thereby opening yet another door – the one leading to privatization. Is that really the choice Missourians want to make?
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design. Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com).
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