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Sponsors play key role in charter school governance, success

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2011 - So you're fed up with hearing about how kids in St. Louis have no quality public schools to attend and you have a great idea for a charter school that will blow the rest of them away.

How do you get started?

You need a lot of things -- a vision, a detailed plan and maybe an experienced management company to help make both of those a reality. You need to put together a board of directors that can articulate the goals of your school and how you are going to reach them.

But before you can get a charter to operate in the state of Missouri, you need a sponsor -- generally a university that will make sure your charter school performs academically and financially the way it has promised to. The law puts the sponsor in charge of keeping the school on the right path -- serving as a set of guardrails, in the words of one charter school expert, or as expressed by Robbyn Wahby, executive assistant for education for Mayor Francis Slay.

"We approach sponsorship as being a critical friend," she said, "as someone who will tell you when there is spinach on your teeth but also someone who will help you when you really need it."

In exchange for autonomy and freedom from the regulations and oversight of traditional school districts, charter schools were supposed to be accountable and deliver superior education. But unlike local school boards, which are elected, charter school sponsors, boards and management companies are not directly accountable to the public, even though they spend tax dollars.

That situation can cause friction and discontent, as it did recently when Mayor Francis Slay criticized the disappointing performance of the Imagine Schoolsin St. Louis, which are sponsored by Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis County. Charters were created as an alternative to failing district schools, he said, and parents and taxpayers expect charters to outperform those district schools.

"If a charter school breaks that promise," Slay said last month, "it should be closed."

A liaison between Missouri Baptist and the Imagine schools, John Jackson, said the university is keeping a close eye on student performance, and if test scores don't improve soon, the next step is probation. Then, he said, the university might have to shut the schools down.

But, Jackson said, Missouri Baptist won't make such a final decision without advice from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"All along the way," he said, "we are conferring with and working with the state department of education. It's not something that's done in isolation. The state has a role as well."

What the Law Says

That kind of process was envisioned when charter schools were first approved in 1998 for St. Louis and Kansas City, the only areas in Missouri where they may operate. This school year, about 10,000 students attend charters in St. Louis, compared with 25,000 in the St. Louis Public Schools, 7,000 in private and parochial schools in the city and 6,000 city students attending St. Louis County schools under the voluntary desegregation program.

The school districts in those two cities may sponsor charters themselves, according to the law, but for the most part the sponsors have been universities, in the cities or in adjacent counties, with teacher preparation programs.

Charter schools are set up as non-profit corporations, and expenses for sponsoring a school are defrayed by the state paying sponsors 1.5 percent of what it spends to educate the school's students, up to $125,000 a year. In some cases, the sponsor plows that money back into the school's operations.

The state board of education does not have the power to close a charter school, and it has only one half-time position responsible for keeping track of how charters are doing. But the board does have the power to suspend or remove a sponsor's authority. If a sponsor loses the authority to sponsor a school, responsibility for that school reverts to the state while it seeks another sponsor or allows the charter to lapse.

Those who want the state board to have more direct power to close underperforming charter schools have tried to change the law, but so far they have not been successful. At a state board meeting in August, members discussed an alternative route to that goal: a rule to give state education officials the right to intervene earlier when charters get in trouble.

Other suggestions to give the state more power over charters have included creation of a statewide charter schools commission, which would have the power to serve as a sponsor and to establish charters in areas besides St. Louis and Kansas City. Illinois recently established such a nine-member panel, though it remains unfunded.

Helping Students Catch Up

Because they were created to provide an alternative to public schools whose students were not performing well, charters often need time to help such students catch up, says Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

But that period can't last forever, he added.

"A school that is just opening needs a minimum of three years to be able to really move forward toward reaching its goals," Thaman said. "But we also believe that it's the sponsor's responsibility to hold the school accountable, at the third-year point and at the fifth-year point when it's time to make a decision on whether to renew a charter.

"If the state board sees that a sponsor is not following through with its schools and not making them accountable, then the state board needs to hold that sponsor accountable, whether through sanctions, probationary status or removing the right that that sponsor has to sponsor charter schools."

So far, Thaman said, the state board has not taken that step.

"That's the piece that has never been fully realized, and it has left sponsors on their own to figure out what they are supposed to be doing and what their role is in making sure schools are held accountable."

To those who say that because charter schools spend public money, they should have more public accountability, Wahby, in the mayor's office, brands the issue "a red herring.

"Public money goes to private folks all the time. Transparency and openness and accountability are paramount. All of this has to be reported to DESE, and they are ultimately in control of these schools.

"It's a little disingenuous if board members or officials with the department say they don't have the power to close these schools. They have 523 school districts in the state. I don't see them closing those schools either. I would ask you to find public schools in Missouri that have contractual goals that they have to meet. The only ones that have that are charter schools."

Did universities always understand what their role would be, and has the sponsor-school relationship worked like it was supposed to in the case of Imagine schools, which her boss criticized as falling short? Wahby admits shortcomings on both counts.

"To be fair," she said, "no one told these universities what was expected of them. It was an immature field. No one knew what sponsors were supposed to do. The best they thought they could do was sign a legal contract and get out of the way."

Missouri Baptist has improved, she added, but it hasn't always been as active as it could have been.

"Are they in Imagine schools? Yes. Have they been as aggressive as we would like them to be? No. Are there pieces that should have or could have done quicker? Yes. But are they taking action and moving forward? They are."

How -- and Why -- Sponsors Do Their Job

Jackson, the charter school liaison at Missouri Baptist, said the university is setting benchmarks for Imagine schools that they will be judged against in November, March and June of the current school year. Continued failure to measure up would lead to probation and, in the worst-case scenario, closing their doors -- a decision he said would be made by university President Alton Lacey and his cabinet.

But he added that the students attending the six Imagine schools need to be taken into account.

"I can't tell you that if on July 1, they did not meet the standards we laid out, then on July 10 we would revoke their charter," Jackson said. "We're talking about 3,800 children. We're committed to fulfilling our role as a sponsor, and we wouldn't want to do anything to upset that, but we also want to provide a safe and positive learning experience as well."

Why do universities take on sponsorship of charter schools? Jackson and representatives of other campuses that have accepted that role say that in most cases, it fits the service mission of their institutions, and it also provides their students the opportunity to get up-close experience in the problems and possible solutions to urban education.

"The bottom line for us is that we want to see a school that is having a positive effect on the young people who are there," said Rob Wild, assistant to the chancellor at Washington University, which sponsors the KIPP school in St. Louis.

"Since we are investing significant human capital in this project, and we are in the business of training future leaders and addressing the problems of society, if there are ways we can learn to teach kids, that's a benefit as well."

Washington U. got an unusually long charter to work with KIPP, 10 years, but it also had a fairly steep learning curve when it came to sponsorship, since it wasn't set up to run a public school. Still, Wild said the effort has proved worthwhile.

"It's been a challenge," he added, "but the flip side of that is there is a great benefit for charters to be autonomous and have a level of reporting that gives them some distance form the traditional infrastructure of how public education is managed. The whole idea of charter autonomy is that you need innovative ideas to help kids learn better. That's the fine line we walk."

Like Wild, Jackson and other liaisons between universities and the charters they sponsor, Susan Cole of Southeast Missouri State University regularly attends board meetings of sponsored charters -- the Lift for Life Academy, in the case of her university. She said the Cape Girardeau campus was interested in getting involved with a small school that was not involved with an outside management company, and for now, it's content to sponsor just the one charter.

Cole was a long-time employee of DESE who was present when Missouri's charter law was passed before taking on her part-time role at SEMO. She was there when some early operators - groups she calls "opportunists who saw dollar signs" -- tried and failed to make Missouri charters go.

Cole made clear that while she is involved with the governance of the school, she does not get heavily involved in day-to-day classroom activities.


"The role of a sponsor is really oversight through activities of the board," she said. "I don't, and my counterparts don't, sit in classrooms and observe teachers. We have a presence at the school and a relationship with the school, but our real focus is working with the board to make sure their oversight is satisfactory and that they have a real sense of what is happening at the school."

Becoming involved with students in St. Louis is often an eye opener for students from southeast Missouri, she said.

"Kids from Scott City and Chaffee and Sikeston and Malden and Kennett rarely have an opportunity to see that kind of urban setting in action," she said. "What's in it for the university is a more global view of the opportunities that exist in the education field outside of just regular public schools."

While she understands the desire of some to have more direct controls of charters by the state, she said that shift in responsibility would be counter to the whole reason to have charters in the first place.

"In a perfect world," Cole said, "charters would be totally accountable. But if charters in Missouri fall under the same rules and regulations as regular public schools, you can't really call them charters. The strictest definition of what charters are supposed to be would be lost."

So the role of the university, particularly one several counties away, becomes crucial, she added.

"It's a huge job, and it can become labor intensive," Cole said. "But it should. It's an important thing to do."

Or as Jackson at Missouri Baptist put it:

"We know how pivotal education happens to be in the lives of children who live in urban areas. We could have sat on the sidelines and watch other people do what we have tried to do. But we wanted to see if we could really make a difference in urban education.

"To not have hope is to say that we've doomed some 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.