Reimagining Education

Charter School Interest Grows Despite Barrier

Parents who live in Columbia have two choices: Send your kids to Columbia Public Schools or pay to educate them privately.

That’s not the case in Missouri’s largest urban areas. In St. Louis and Kansas City, parents can send their children to free public charter schools if district schools aren’t a good fit.

Charter schools: key points ? Free public schools governed by an independent board of directors.
? In Missouri, charter schools are only allowed in Kansas City and St. Louis.
? Funded through the state’s foundation formula and a portion of a local district’s property tax revenue.
? Enrollment can be based on geographic boundaries or on a first-come, first-served basis.
? Accountable to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the federal No Child Left Behind law.
? Can pay teachers based on performance, not subject to teacher tenure.

Source: Missouri Charter Public School Association

Charter schools are publicly funded buildings that are not under the umbrella of a traditional school district. Instead, they’re typically sponsored by a college or university and governed by the group that applies for the charter.

Some question whether the Missouri law allowing them to exist only in the urban areas is fair, especially in light of recent news that some students aren’t faring well in Columbia schools.

“We might need to start talking about it as an alternative,” state Rep. Ed Robb said. “It might be just what the doctor ordered for Columbia.”

Robb had planned to sponsor legislation to expand charter school options in Missouri but was defeated by Democrat Chris Kelly in the Nov. 4 election.

Kelly said he is skeptical of a charter proposal, deeming it a “thinly disguised attack on the public school system.” Columbia might not have the same need for educational options as urban areas, Kelly said, because the schools here are strong. “It would be hard to say kids in Columbia, Mo., don’t get treated fairly in terms of educational opportunities,” he said.

But at least two private educators in town believe families need other alternatives. Myke Gemkow plans to open a private Montessori school for low-income children in the First Ward next fall and said he would “absolutely look into it” if a charter option were available.

And Joelle Quoirin supports expanding Missouri’s charter laws so she could open her French immersion preschool, La Petite Ecole, free of charge to elementary students. “I definitely think it’s very much unfair the way the statute reads now,” Quoirin said. “It isn’t to say that all charter schools are quality schools, but at least it gives parents options.”

Providing options is the goal, said Aaron North, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. “It’s about empowering parents,” he said. “Now if you live in certain areas and can’t afford to send your child to a private school, you have to go to the school to which you are assigned,” he said. The goal “is to allow access to the charter model to students and families who want it in Missouri. We don’t have designs on putting charter schools in communities if they don’t want them.”

Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon of Columbia Public Schools said she is not opposed to thinking outside the box to boost achievement but isn’t convinced charter schools are the right solution. “We don’t want to throw money at an experiment,” she said.

Research is mixed on whether charter schools do a better job educating children than public schools.

A 2006 study from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education found that students in traditional public schools do just as well or better than their charter or private school counterparts. But in 2004, a Harvard University researcher found that students in charter schools score significantly higher on reading and math tests than peers in traditional schools. And charter schools are among the top performing schools in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas when it comes to Missouri Assessment Program test scores.

Lyon also questioned how charter schools are accountable for the public funding they receive. Traditional schools rely on residents to approve board members and district ballot issues at the polls.

But if a charter school isn’t performing well, parents can simply remove their children, said former Sen. Franc Flotron, who now serves as a lobbyist for the charter school association.

“When it’s all said and done, we actually believe it’s a good thing that charter schools can go out of business,” Flotron said. “Obviously, that can be painful. Having that threat out there that you can go out of business really forces the rigor of how you operate your school. That’s something you don’t have in the traditional schools.”

Flotron said he will continue to lobby to expand charter school options in Missouri, but he also acknowledged it will be a tough sale. It took him eight years to pass the current charter law, and he said he could only get his proposal passed after agreeing to limit the schools to Kansas City and St. Louis.

“Having watched the Missouri General Assembly for 25 years now, day in and day out, I can say the public school establishment is one of the most powerful political influences in the state,” Flotron said. The traditional educational system “does not seem comfortable with the idea of parents deciding where their kids are going to go to school. Do I think that’s rational? No.”

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