Updated on May 21, 2020: Lawmakers again attempted to advance charter school expansion and school choice initiatives in the 2020 legislative session but those efforts failed.
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. Currently, charter schools operate only in Missouri’s urban areas, but some lawmakers want to allow them to operate statewide. Exactly what are charter schools? How do they compare to local public schools? What would charter school expansion would mean for all Missourians?
What are Charter Schools?
According to Missouri state statutes, charter schools are independent public schools. This means they receive state funding like traditional public schools, but operate with more freedom and less red tape. In other words, charter schools are publicly financed but are privately operated.
In addition, national management organizations and private boards often operate charter schools rather than locally-elected school boards. 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:
In the traditional public school system, all teachers must be state-certified (licensed) in the subject and grade levels they’ve been hired for. For example, a high school biology teacher must have a valid Missouri Biology certificate for grades 9-12, while a kindergarten teacher must possess a state license in early childhood education (Birth – Grade 3). 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 vary greatly from state to state, and even more so internationally.
Traditional public schools accept all students regardless of their ability level, special needs, native language, or other factors, but charter schools have the option of being more selective. This can have a big impact on test score averages, graduation rates, and the like.
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 that promote charter school expansion – HB581, SB51, and SB292. If lawmakers approve it, new schools could be established anywhere in the state. Charter officials must 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. We hold traditional public schools 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 isn’t 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. 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.
Most charter schools operate under the typical “brick and mortar” model where students travel to and from campus. However, some operate virtually – meaning students complete their education online. Teachers live in that state, or they could be located across the country or even abroad.
Across the nation, many virtual charter schools operate 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. We must keep a watchful eye on local school districts. We need to make sure they are providing our children with the best education possible. However, they also need our support.
Simply allowing more schools to draw state funding without sufficient accountability is not the way to improve our neighborhood schools. It will starve them down until our public education system is no longer able to function. This will open yet another door – the one leading to privatization. Is that really the choice Missourians want to make?
About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in educator preparation, accreditation, online teaching & learning, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now a freelance writer and educational consultant.
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