JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Some Missouri lawmakers are seeking to allow charter schools throughout the state and tighten the oversight for them, hoping to improve the quality of education while boosting the options available to parents.
The state has allowed charter schools for more than a decade, but the schools have been limited to students in the St. Louis city and Kansas City districts. Charter schools receive public funding, but unlike a traditional public school, they are independent and are sponsored by universities, community colleges or local school districts.
Legislation proposed in the House and Senate would allow more groups to be sponsors and permit charter schools outside Missouri's two largest cities.
Under legislation, charter schools could be established in districts that have lost their state accreditation or are provisionally accredited. Charters also would be permitted in accredited school districts if the local school board agreed to be the sponsor. New organizations that would be eligible to sponsor charter schools would include public universities with main campuses farther away than currently allowed, additional private Missouri universities, certain charitable organizations and a newly created Missouri Charter Public School Commission.
Supporters of expanding charter schools say the schools can offer specialty programs and give parents another option for educating their children.
"You have more flexibility," said Earl Simms, the director of advocacy and communications for the Missouri Charter Public School Association. "You have the ability to implement innovative programs. If you see a certain program or certain material is not working, you're able to change that much more quickly than is typically seen at a district level."
Besides expanding where charter schools are allowed, the legislation also would create new requirements designed to boost accountability. For example, the Missouri State Board of Education would evaluate charter sponsors every three years, and the board would need to approve new sponsors before they could start a charter school. The term for a charter also would be set at five years instead of the current range of five to 10 years.
Other changes are designed to make it easier to take action when a charter school is not performing well. Under current law, the State Board of Education can suspend a charter school sponsor, but the board then takes responsibility for the schools. The legislation would make the Missouri Charter Public School Commission responsible for those schools, which backers hope could make the state board more willing to take action. The newly created commission would have nine members, who are appointed by the governor and serve four year terms.
More than 11,000 students attend charter schools in St. Louis and about 10,000 are enrolled in charters in Kansas City. There are 49 charter schools between the two cities, with three closing after the current school year, the Missouri Charter Public School Association said.
It is not immediately clear how many more students would enroll in a charter school if the option were available. Missouri's three unaccredited school districts are St. Louis, Kansas City and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis County. Another nine school districts are provisionally accredited, including two in southeastern Missouri, two in St. Louis County and others scattered throughout the state.
The Missouri School Boards' Association said local school boards should be the one to sponsor charter schools in their areas. Spokesman Brent Ghan said local education officials are accustomed to overseeing schools and are in the best position to be charter school sponsors. He said the performance of Missouri's charters has been mixed and that it would be concerning to expand where the charter schools are allowed while still allowing other organizations to sponsor them.
"We are not necessarily supporting the expansion of charter schools at all. If that happens, we want to see sponsorship limited to local school boards," Ghan said. "We just don't see charter schools as the answer to improving education necessarily. We just haven't seen the evidence."
State lawmakers considered similar charter school legislation last year, and education issues are attracting particular attention this year in the Capitol. The Legislature is expected to consider changes to the state formula for distributing basic aid to school districts and to examine how to implement or revise an existing Missouri law that allows students to transfer from unaccredited school districts. Some GOP leaders have said they want to use the momentum to pursue broader education changes; however, proponents of the charter school legislation said they prefer keeping their issue out of a larger and likely controversial education overhaul.
Sen. Bill Stouffer, who has filed one of the charter school bills, said it would create additional education options and help to eliminate existing charter schools that are not working. He said he supports public schools and thinks it might help for there to be some competition.
"We're spending a lot of money on education and not getting results," said Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton. "Look at the expenditures over time, the expenditure line goes up 45 degrees and the performance line runs just about level. We're not getting a return on our investment."
Charter schools is SB576 and HB1228