Editorials

Expand charter schools beyond KC and St. Louis? Lawmakers should make some fixes first

The ABCs of charter schools

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri
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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

A recurring effort to allow charter schools to operate in more Missouri cities has resurfaced this legislative session with a pair of bills that would expand the program beyond Kansas City and St. Louis.

Both measures should be rejected unless legislators agree to improve accountability and oversight of charter schools — and unless lawmakers allocate additional funds for public schools.

House Bill 581 and Senate Bill 292 would allow charter schools to open in any county with a charter form of government; in cities with populations greater than 30,000; and in any fully accredited school district in the state if evidence of community support is provided. State law currently permits charter schools only in Kansas City, St. Louis and in unaccredited school districts.

Parents should have options when it comes to their children, proponents of expansion say. Opponents argue that charter schools siphon off funds that would otherwise go to public schools.

State Rep. Rebecca Roeber, a Republican from Lee’s Summit, sponsored one of the charter expansion measures. She said many students in Missouri are not being well-served by their assigned schools.

Less than 50 percent of Missouri schoolchildren were proficient or better in language arts and math on the state’s Annual Performance Report, Roeber said. Expanding school choice would help improve student achievement, she believes.

“Choice is a good thing,” Roeber said. “Competition always makes products better and cheaper.”

But public schools and charter schools should not be viewed as competitors. And expansion should not come at the expense of traditional public schools.

Many charter schools have come and gone in Kansas City. Some have been wildly successful, while others have been indisputable failures, dogged by financial mismanagement and poor performance.

Overall, charter schools have a decidedly mixed record in Missouri’s two largest cities. Lawmakers should take a hard look at what’s worked — and more importantly, what hasn’t — and make some needed changes to improve accountability before expanding the program.

Charter schools should be held to similar standards for financial accountability and good governance as traditional public schools. But they are not. School districts view this lack of oversight as problematic, said Brent Gahn, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, which opposes charter school expansion.

“This (House) bill doesn’t address that,” Gahn said.

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the proposed legislation would improve accountability for all charter schools and make it easier to close those that are underperforming. He argues that charter schools are held accountable by state law, state regulations and their own charters.

But Gahn disagrees. School districts are governed by elected school board members who live in the district and pay taxes there. Charter schools should operate under the same regulations, he said.

“They receive public dollars, but they are not accountable to taxpayers like traditional schools,” Gahn said.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a nonprofit think tank for school funding equity, said Missouri’s charter law is extremely weak and in urgent need of overhaul. He suggested that lawmakers appoint independent experts to conduct a thorough examination of the existing charter program.

“The state has to get it right,” he said.

He’s correct. And while there’s a credible case to be made for eventually expanding charter schools beyond Kansas City and St. Louis, bolstering oversight and adequately funding public education should be lawmakers’ first priorities.

Legislators should start by strengthening the existing charter program before expanding statewide.

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