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Report charts course for Missouri's charter schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2011 - A new report on charter schools in Missouri presents an interesting lesson: It may be easier to increase the number of charters in Missouri if educators paid greater attention to closing down some of the ones that already exist.

The report, titled "Delivering on the Promise: How Missouri can grow excellent, accountable public charter schools," says Missouri's limitation of charters to just St. Louis and Kansas City discourages national firms from coming to the state; it also says that a spotlight on poorly performing charter schools has hurt the state's effort to expand and improve.

"There are certainly some excellent charter schools in Missouri," said Nelson Smith, the former chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and chief author of the report, which was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City.

"But it's also true that other ones have not been meeting an acceptable standard for performance. As I talked to people in the state, I found a sense of impatience that the movement is being held back by persistence of this group of schools, in both cities. The best way to establish serious credibility going forward is to make the charter model work."

Making charters work in Missouri, the report said, also means making the rules clearer, giving state officials the resources to keep closer track of how the schools are doing, making it easier for charters to use existing public school buildings that have been closed and, perhaps most important, ensuring that charters where students aren't making the grade aren't allowed to linger.

"We've always had the ability to close schools where something was wrong with management," Smith said. "But I think charter authorizers around the country are taking action and becoming more focused on purely academic reasons."

That change of focus is fine with Chris Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner of elementary and secondary education. She said the report provided positive feedback for how the state's charter school program is operating, and she agrees with some of the changes it recommends.

"The notable thing I found reassuring is the emphasis on accountability," Nicastro said in an interview. "We've been saying for some time that the number of charter schools is not really the issue for our department. Our issue, whether we have five or 500 or 5,000 charter schools, is that they need to be financially sound and performing at high levels."

A Growing Alternative

The charter school movement began to provide students and their families a publicly funded alternative to traditional district schools that too often did not achieve satisfactory academic results. Nationwide, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than 4,900 charters operate in 41 states with an enrollment of more than 1.6 million students -- about 3.3 percent of the total of public school enrollment nationally.

In Missouri, which passed its charter school law in 1998, 51 charters operate in St. Louis and Kansas City, with more than 18,000 students combined. A recent report from the Center for Education Reform gave the state's charter law a B, grouping it with eight other states a notch below the three top-tier jurisdictions: Minnesota, California and the District of Columbia.

Smith, who now is an adviser to the charter school alliance, says Missouri's law isn't a bad one, but it falls short in the area of quality control.

To improve that measure, and make the state more fertile ground for charters to grow and flourish, the report makes several specific recommendations:

  • Create rigorous standards for performance and step up enforcement to make sure that substandard charters do not remain open.
  • Improve the process for authorizing sponsors of charters by requiring incumbents to re-apply, instituting strong rules for new ones and closely monitoring them once schools are operating.
  • Create a single, statewide authorizing body to bring uniformity and clarity to what is now a sometimes incoherent process.
  • Expand charters statewide so that every child who needs the option of a quality education will have access to it.
  • Make Missouri a nurturing destination for the nation's top charter-school operators.
  • Equalize access to public funding for charters and for traditional public schools and make abandoned public school buildings available for use by charters.
  • Establish strong state oversight as a priority and make the funds available for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to keep close watch on how charters perform, academically and financially.

The report notes that Missouri had a late start with charter schools, compared with other states, and even now has shown "spotty implementation" in making sure the schools do what they are supposed to do: provide a high-quality alternative for students whose traditional schools do not.
It concludes:

"We want to see Missouri rise to the top: supporting charter schools with appropriate resources, replicating the best performers so they can serve more students, and taking swift and certain action on charter schools that chronically fail in their mission."

Accounting for Accountability

No one wants to see schools fail, of course, and accountability is the growing watchword among educators and lawmakers. The question is: How can the increased need for oversight and the proposed growth of charters be reconciled with the ever-shrinking amount of money that state government has for schools and other services?

Nicastro at DESE notes that at this point, the office in charge of monitoring Missouri's charter schools is down to one person, and he has other duties in addition. She is all for accountability, but she wants to make sure Missourians know the realities involved.

"Our capacity to monitor charter schools has been significantly impacted by staff reductions," she said. "In this economic environment, I'm not sure there would be a lot of interest in establishing another bureaucracy."

Cheri Shannon, who heads the Missouri Charter Public School Association, says that personnel is just one part of the problem. Looming just as large is the disparity in rules and standards that charter sponsors seem to follow to make sure that the schools they are responsible for are doing the right thing.

"It's inconsistent," she said. "There is no standardization at all. Sometimes, it even varies between one person who works at a university and someone else. If I visit with UMKC, it is going to have one set of standards to apply to the evaluation process. I may go to another sponsor and it will say, 'We do it this way.'

"It's all over the board. What would be helpful would be getting a clear set of guidelines for applicants, so everybody is using the same playbook."

She says DESE is "doing great with the resources they have," but the state should have one person spending full-time on charters. "Who knows where the money will come from?" Shannon said. "We're in a big budget crisis; we all know that."

Speaking of finances, Shannon also would like to see more resources made available to charters, particularly in terms of the many public school buildings in St. Louis and Kansas City that have been closed because of declining enrollments.

"We believe those buildings that have been paid for by taxpayers should be used for school students," she said. "It would be great to be able to lease those schools to charter schools rather than having charters in rehabbed warehouses without playgrounds or other facilities.

"Too often, charter schools are expected to do as good a job or better with less."

Nicastro notes that often, school bond issues used to build or improve schools have been passed by voters who assume the money will be used in a certain way, so letting them be used by charters may undermine taxpayers' confidence.

On the issue of closing down charters that aren't doing the job, Nicastro and Shannon agree that high standards need to be established and enforced. With many children coming to charters who are already achieving below grade level, it can be hard to tell just how long the charter schools should have to show they are turning things around.

But in the end, Nicastro noted, charters need to be held to the same expectations as traditional public schools.

"Charter schools were designed to be an alternative to a failing public system," she said, "so people expect them to perform better than the district from which the children came. I just want them to perform at high levels."

The Legislative View

Changes in charter schools would come at a time of heavy interest in Jefferson City in shaking up the way education is run and how that might change. Debate runs from vouchers to open enrollment to wholesale revisions in determining what school students will be allowed to attend.

State Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, R-Washington, who heads the House Education Committee, has co-sponsored a so-called trigger bill,  which would let parents under certain circumstances force a struggling school to make sweeping changes.

He would like to lift the geographic caps on charter schools, increase their accountability and institute some kind of statewide authorizing board or commission. And he wants to make sure that expectations -- and possible sanctions -- are laid out from the start.

"When folks come together and have an idea for a charter," Dieckhaus said, "we want them to have a clear goal and a clear focus. They have to have a dissolution plan, either because they are financially insolvent or they haven't reached their goals. We have to have a way to shut them down."

With more charters, he added, the state will have to ensure more oversight. "I am going to expect to have more people involved in monitoring them," Dieckhaus said.

His counterpart in the Senate, Republican David Pearce of Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says he plans to file a bill in the next week or so that would allow local districts across the state to sponsor charter schools. Like others, his focus is on accountability and achievement, using the state's current school improvement plan to make sure charters are performing as they should.

"Some charter schools do exactly what they should be doing and are a source of pride and accomplishment," he said. "Others aren't making the grade. They get public funds, and they should be just as accountable as other public schools are."

And, Pearce said, they should have the option of using existing buildings that have been shut down by local districts.

"It is a waste of dollars to restrict what those former school buildings can be used for," he said. "I think it's very parochial and very selfish to say an old public school building cannot be used for charters. In some cases, you have beautiful old buildings that aren't reaching the folks that they were designed for. If a charter can use that building, then gosh, let's let them use it."

Those kinds of proposals mesh well with the recommendations in Smith's report. Of course the long, strange trip from introduction of legislation to implementation of its intent can take odd turns. Still, he is heartened by the attention that charters and other types of school choice are receiving throughout Missouri.

"We're seeing a lot of ferment," he said, "where people are dissatisfied with the status quo and trying to open up a lot of options for kids. I would want to look closely at every one of those proposals, so you could try to see what would happen. But it's very healthy to look at what they are doing to try to help kids."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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