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State legislators are starting to consider what bills they plan to introduce for the 2018 session, and a Missouri General Assembly Joint Committee on Education hearing held on Sept. 12 gives some insight on how the General Assembly will address the issue of charter school expansion.
Committee Co-Chairs Representative David Wood and Senator Gary Romine kicked off the hearing with a careful statement that the state needs to find a way to sure up the quality of existing charter schools in St. Louis City and Kansas City before considering expanding them to other areas in the state.
Missouri Charter Public School Commission Executive Director Robbyn Wahby told the commission that she agreed there are ways the state could increase accountability measures but argued that the focus needs to be on stricter accountability for charter school sponsors rather than changing the existing accountability measures for the schools themselves.
“Parents choose charter schools,” she said. “If there is no parent interested, then it will not open or stay open. The second level of accountability is state standards. Those are aligned almost virtually the same between charter and district schools. For districts, it is in MSIP and accreditation and for charters, it is performance contracts and high stakes renewal.”
Wahby said she supported language in last year’s charter school legislation that focused on improving the method of closing charter schools that are not meeting those high standards, but said the state also needs to increase the impact poor performance has on sponsors by limiting their ability to sponsor charter schools if any of the schools they are sponsoring face closure.
“We have a pretty high rate of closure in Missouri,” Wahby added. “But that means that our accountability is actually working. Accountability should go with expansion. They should go hand in hand.”
The ability to expand charter schools into other areas of the state is important for families and students, as the schools offer parents needed choices and actually help to increase the quality of education for both charter school and district school students.
“Both districts (Kansas City and St. Louis City), since charter schools have been around, have increased in quality,” said Wahby. “In St. Louis we saw a 3 percent increase in public school enrollment with both the district and charter adding more options.
“I think we have a lot of people in St. Louis and Kansas City who have found charter schools to be the solution for them,” she added. “There are other families looking for that same kind of quality or option but unfortunately have to move when they do not have access to a quality school where they live.”
Representatives from a number of school districts in the Kansas City area provided lots of information about what they are are doing in their own districts to provide students more choices and options but provided little argument against expanding charter schools.
Dr. Amy Hartsfield, a member-at-large on the Kansas City Public School Board, argued that charter school boards are not elected by the community and said charter schools would undermine and underfund traditional district schools.
But her arguments were met by skepticism from the committee which questioned her use of a selective magnet school as an example of a successful district school and her concerns about the district having larger overhead costs than charter schools.
Hartsfield even admitted that children should have options in their education and that funding for students should follow the student, a key aspect of school choice.
“I agree children should not be held hostage,” she said. “Each child deserves the money for their education.”
Other school leaders detailed offerings they have developed in their districts to give students more choice, ranging from project based learning to International Baccalaureate programs, but they had difficulty explaining how giving parents the power to choose a charter school would undermine local control over schools.
“I believe neighborhoods have something that they should share,” said North Kansas City Superintendent Dr. Dan Clemens. “If schools are failing I believe the vote of the people should determine if we need charter schools or not. I believe we can offer anything a charter school could.”
Sen. Bill Eigel questioned that argument, noting that if every school system could provide everything students and parents needed then there would be no need for charter schools.
“If you are saying that you are going to provide all avenues for education that a parent might choose then there would be no motivation for a parent to choose a charter school,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways and say we will provide everything because if you do then there is no motivation for a parent to support a charter school. In many situations, there are things that traditional public schools do not provide and that is why the parents are choosing the charter schools over the traditional schools.
“What could be more local than having every parent in your community making the decision about where their child ought to go?” added Sen. Eigel, pointing out that traditional schools are getting more money today than they have in the past. “What could be more local than your community making the choice? This choice is a wonderful way to allow communities to do precisely what you ask, which is to decide for themselves. To have every single parent decide what is best for their kids would be a great thing.”
Parents from a variety of school districts and backgrounds asked the committee to expand charter schools to other areas of the state.
Lisa Smith, a parent in the poorly-performing Riverview Gardens district, said she needs more options for her children.
“Parents in north St. Louis County feel like our children are just numbers trapped in zip codes and being forced to attend failing schools,” she said. “My own 5-year-old child was attacked in the bathroom while attending one of these schools and the school administrators refused to help me protect him. We need other options than being forced to participate in a system that does not work.
“My friends who live just a few miles from me have the option to send their children to charter schools,” added Smith. “All the parents I know that have a charter option are very pleased with the charter schools their children are attending. The parents in north St. Louis County think it is unfair that we do not have charter school options. We want options because we know what is best for our children’s educational upbringing.”
Dr. James Shuls, an education professor and former public school teacher, told the board his experience as a parent in the Wentzville area underlined the need for charter school expansion.
“I live in a very good school district,” he said. “We are adding new schools all the time, but I have to tell you I am quite unsatisfied. Two of my kids are doing quite fine, but my seventh-grader hates school. He has hated school for years. I really think he would benefit from a different model. But there is no other school in the district I can send him to because they all adopt essentially the same model. There is no option for me. I cannot afford to send him to private school and there are no charter schools in our area.”
“Charter schools and school choice is not about failure, it is about options,” he added. “I am a parent in a high-quality school district and I would like an option.”