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President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, is making the rounds to detail requirements for his $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. This fund is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as “the stimulus plan.” One thing is becoming clear, caps on charter schools will put states at a “competitive disadvantage” when applying for Race to the Top money.
Often people only think of these caps as a limit on the number of charter schools that can open in a state, but Missouri also has caps that are not often thought of. Unfortunately, Missouri has placed geographical caps on where charter schools can open. Currently charter schools can only operate inside of the St. Louis and Kansas City Public School districts. These caps deny parents and students in the rest of the state educational choice. Families in Riverview Gardens and Wellston are trapped in unaccredited districts and groups in Columbia and Springfield who wish to open charters are shut out.
Also, caps are placed on who can charter a school. Everyone wants sponsors who are accountable and hold their schools to high quality standards, but why only let universities sponsor schools? This policy leaves out some of the best community institutions and companies in our state, like the Missouri Botanical Garden or businesses, like Edward Jones, who could sponsor schools centered around knowledge in their respective fields. Early exposure to high quality institutions and businesses could promote students to seek careers in these areas and drive them to gear their education toward the goal of working at one of these institutions, or in a related area.
Despite these caps on public charter schools, progress has been made toward bringing Missouri education stimulus money. Last week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed on to Memorandum of Agreement to show support for Secretary Duncan’s Common Core State Standards Initiative. This initiative seeks to set a common core of state standards in English language arts and mathematics for grades K-12. The agreement still needs Missouri’s Education Commissioner to sign on and this position has been vacant since the death of Kent King last winter. While, the State Board of Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s new Commissioner signing onto the agreement would be a step forward, it is a baby step toward receiving much needed stimulus funds that would benefit all Missouri public schools.
Officials in all elected and appointed offices Missouri should embrace a full package of education reforms promoted by President Obama and his Education Secretary not only to make the state competitive when applying for stimulus money, but for the advances that it will make for Missouri children and families. This means that the legislature should step up in the 2010 session and lift caps on charter schools and create, and fund, merit programs for districts in the state in addition to St. Louis. This also means that local districts must make policies that reflect nationally supported reforms. De facto impediments to charter school expansion, like St. Louis Public Schools’ deed restrictions, must be removed as scheduled on June 30 and no other restrictive policies be put in it’s place. As Secretary Duncan stated in his speech last week at the National Charter Schools Conference, “the education reform movement is not a table where we just sit around and talk. It’s a train that is leaving the station, gaining speed, momentum and direction. It’s time for everyone, everywhere to get on board.”