Education Reform: Is Charter School Expansion the Answer?

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 ( 


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Funding Missouri’s Schools = Advancing Missouri’s Future

School funding is not a particularly exciting topic, but it’s extremely important. All of us—each educator, legislator, employer, and parent—should be well-informed when it comes to how our P-12 public schools are funded. While it’s true that money doesn’t always guarantee success and high performance, it’s very difficult to make substantial progress without adequate fiscal support. Here are some important facts based on 2017 state rankings and 2018 school statistics estimates of school statistics data:

  • There are 556 operating school districts in Missouri, ranking 10th in the nation.
  • Missouri ranks 34th in the nation for its number of high school graduates.
  • The average salary for public school teachers in 2015–16 was $58,064 in current dollars (i.e., dollars that are not adjusted for inflation).
  • In constant (i.e., inflation-adjusted) dollars, the average salary for teachers was 1% lower in 2015–16 than in 1990–91.
  • Ranking 41st in the nation, the average Missouri teacher salary in 2017 was just over $48,000.
  • School funding per enrolled student in Missouri actually went down in the last fiscal year:
    • 2016: $12,551 per pupil (26th in the nation)
    • 2017: $12,069 per pupil (30th in the nation)
  • Likewise, school funding per student in average daily attendance also went down:
    • 2016: $13,074 (29th in the nation)
    • 2017: $12,578 (31st in the nation)
  • The bulk of funding for Missouri’s schools comes from local government sources and remained about the same over the last two years:
    • 2016: 58.6% (4th in the nation)
    • 2017: 58.5% (4th in the nation)
  • Only about a third of the funding for Missouri’s public schools comes from state government sources, which is far behind what most other state governments contribute:
    • 2016: 32.7% (48th in the nation)
    • 2017: 33.0% (47th in the nation)
  • Even federal government funding for Missouri’s public schools dropped in the last two years:
    • 2016: 8.7% (28th nationally)
    • 2017: 8.4% (27th nationally)
  • Missouri is in the middle of the pack when it comes to per-student enrolled expenditures, and it remained almost flat over the past two years:
    • 2016: $10,784 (27th in rank)
    • 2017: $10,826 (28th in rank)

2018-19 Projections

Based on trend data, Missouri will not fare well during the 2018-19 academic year:

  • The number of teachers will drop by 6.5%.
  • The number of all instructional staff will drop by 6.5%.
  • The average teacher salary will increase by 1.2% to just over $49,000. It is should be noted though that when calculating for inflation, teacher salaries are projected to show a 4% decline between 2009-2018.
  • Federal revenue receipts are expected to drop by 9%.
  • Meanwhile, expenditures per student enrolled are expected to rise by 1.7%.


So, what’s the takeaway? What does this mean for Missouri schools and for our state?

  • We have a lot of school districts operating the state.
  • All these districts must share a pot of money that’s shrinking each year.
  • State funding is woefully inadequate, near the bottom of all 50 states, and federal funding is less than 9% of what school districts receive.
  • That lays the bulk of responsibility to keep school doors open on the shoulders of local government. If this trend continues, property taxes must continue to rise to make up for the state and federal shortfall.
  • Missouri school districts are having to make very tough choices in order to operate within their limited budget. As a result, updating textbooks, buying microscopes, repairing technology, and the like have to be put on the back burner.
  • Missouri is losing its teachers. Some are retiring; some are moving to other states; and some are leaving the profession for more pay. This will lead to an even greater teacher shortage and will reduce the quality of instruction. Remember that research has proven time after time that teacher quality is the #1 factor in student achievement. If we fail to properly invest in our teachers and provide them with the kind of ongoing professional support they need to be successful, we are ultimately turning our backs on our state’s students.


Being a Part of the Solution: What Can We Do?

The state of Missouri offers endless opportunities for technology incubators, economic growth, cutting edge healthcare, tourism, and the like. Our residents are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and tackle the hard jobs. We can address the challenges that our P-12 public schools are facing, and we can work together to make wise choices for the future.

Rather than the bulk of decisions being made by lawmakers who are influenced by lobbyists representing special interest groups, it’s important to receive input from those directly impacted: School administrators, teachers, community members, workforce representatives, parents, and of course, students. And, input needs to be much more than a hearing or two held in Jefferson City–these groups need to have a seat at the table and actually play a role in influencing decisions, allocations, and public policy. We need greater transparency and greater communication; a school superintendent should not have to learn of a funding cut through the local newspaper or on television. These stakeholders must be treated with respect and their insights should be taken seriously. Lawmakers should be out in their districts on a regular basis, not just for photo ops or fundraising, but for sincere listening and collaboration.

If lawmakers in Jefferson City are truly interested in promoting academic excellence in our state, they will create a structure in their districts to encourage active collaboration with constituents. It wouldn’t be that difficult, and I suspect they wouldn’t have any problem getting participants. I’ll start by raising my hand to be a part of the solution–who else is with me?

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 (