When the Missouri legislature opened the door to charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, lawmakers were counting on school choice as a remedy for struggling urban districts.
Nearly 20 years later, the Kansas City School District is provisionally accredited, scoring lower this year than last in recent state progress reports. Full accreditation is at least three years off because the district needs to consistently show improvement.
Yet many charter schools aren’t performing any better. And they haven’t resulted in more school-aged children remaining within the district’s boundaries. In fact, public school enrollment has dropped by 21 percent since charters first opened. And the dearth of charter schools east of Highway 71 raises questions about which children are being left out of this public school option.
The Missouri Board of Education should appoint two independent boards, one focused on Kansas City and the other on St. Louis, to study what’s working in charter schools — and what’s not working.
Gov. Eric Greitens’ efforts to install an advocate for expanding school choice as the state’s education commissioner make a closer look at charter school performance all the more necessary.
There are now 22 charter school operators in Kansas City. A number of them are notable success stories, both in public image and as judged by test scores. But too many have performed worse, or have barely edged out the school district, in state assessments, according to recently released data.
Last year, eight charter schools had annual performance report scores lower than the district’s score of 70 percent. This year, six dropped below the district, which saw its score slip to 63.9 percent.
The six charters falling below the district are Hogan Preparatory Academy, Genesis School, Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy, Benjamin Banneker Academy, Della Lamb Elementary and DeLaSalle Charter School, according to recently released data by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Two more, Pathway Academy (64.3 percent) and Academy for Integrated Arts (64 percent), barely edged out the district’s score. Citizens of the World wasn’t scored because a charter has to be open three years to be ranked.
By law, the district cannot turn children away, no matter how difficult or expensive they are to educate. Yet some charters have been able to manage diversity on their own terms, enrolling only a smattering of economically disadvantaged students.
Some charters are not educating high percentages of the children with the greatest needs, such as those with learning disabilities who require specialized education plans and the children who are studying English as a second language. The charter schools that are educating these children tend to have lower test scores.
Kansas City Superintendent Mark Bedell is researching whether schools have become more racially and economically segregated since the advent of charters. That is a relevant question that should also be answered by the independent boards.
Bedell, however, is not anti-charter, a positive change from some past superintendents who saw them only as competition. In fact, last year the district began sponsoring a charter: Kansas City Neighborhood Academy.
Charter school enrollment in Kansas City is 11,696. The school district has 14,239 students.
This school year, 1,130 students left the district to enroll in a charter. And at least 527 left a charter to enroll in a district school, a figure that did not take into account those who left during a transition grade, such as moving from elementary to middle school.
Students appear to be constantly shuffling, as they move among charters, from the district to charter schools and to other school districts, including Hickman Mills, Raytown and Kansas City, Kan., and back.
Even more disheartening is the snapshot offered by the graduation rates of students who were enrolled as ninth graders in 2014. For those at charter schools, 54 percent did not earn their high school diploma by 2017, compared to 34 percent of the students who were ninth graders and enrolled in district schools, according to district data.
Charters do not depend solely on public funds. Most are heavily subsidized by deep philanthropic pockets. Despite that extra infusion of cash, many have floundered and been forced to close, often due to poor governance by their boards. A school shutting its doors is a disruption for students and families.
Going forward, Kansas City should learn from the successes of top-performing charters. But more attention must be paid to where charters are located. Strong charter schools can be stabilizing forces for neighborhoods, serving children from a variety of economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
A broad offering of high quality public school options spread evenly across the district geographically should be the goal in Kansas City.
With strong oversight from the state board of education, Kansas City can ensure that all children have good choices in public schools.