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Commentary: Imagine Schools case shows charter schools are accountable

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2012 - The recent news of the closures of all six Imagine Schools, Inc.-operated charter schools in St. Louis has sparked renewed cries that the charter school model of public education has failed and is not a viable option for Missouri's families. What these closures show, in fact, is that the exact opposite is true.

The reasons given for closure of the Imagine schools were their ongoing poor academic performance and fiscal management. In September the Missouri Charter Public School Association called attention to these areas, questioning whether perhaps they were related to issues with the management company, Imagine Schools, and not the staff within the schools.

The state board's action demonstrates that charter schools in Missouri are held accountable in the exact way the model intends. Charter schools are given the very clear bargain of increased autonomy -- decreasing regulation and allowing for innovation and greater ability to focus on the academic needs of their students -- in exchange for increased accountability of their academic, financial, and operational performance.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education currently identifies many benchmarks to gauge the performance of charter schools. These benchmarks include performance on the state's standardized MAP tests and the department's annual performance reports. The department also reports charter schools experiencing financial stress using the same criteria for Missouri's traditional school districts.

Current state law also requires annual audits to be submitted by charter schools to their sponsor and the department to assure proper financial practices. In addition to these department indicators, Missouri's charter schools use private academic assessment programs to gauge individual student achievement and growth at multiple points during the school year.

While current law provides for multiple accountability mechanisms, the closure of the Imagine schools, and othes that have preceded them shows the need for statutory changes that increase accountability by further defining the responsibilities and requirements of the department, charter school sponsors and individual charter schools. We have strongly supported Senate and House bills during the 2012 legislative session that would make these needed changes and will continue to work vigorously toward their passage before the end of the legislative session.

Missouri's charter schools are working tirelessly every day to provide quality public education options for students and families in the state.

Innovative school models at City Garden Montessori, Academie Lafayette and St. Louis Language Immersion Schools are demonstrating new instructional methods to increase student achievement. Hope Academy and Shearwater Education Foundation are helping to recover, and graduate, drop out students who otherwise may not have done so.

KIPP-Inspire and Hogan Prep Academy are making rapid academic growth in very challenging environments. Gateway Science Academy, South City Preparatory Academy and Better Learning Communities are showing the positive outcomes achieved when the surrounding community is heavily engaged in their neighborhood school. This list of Missouri charter schools that have overwhelmingly accepted the bargain of increased autonomy for increased accountability could go on.

The Imagine school closures do not show the failure of the Missouri's charter school movement; rather they show the success of the state's charter school model. Missouri's charter schools will continue to embrace the bargain of increased autonomy for increased accountability and continue to offer public school options for the state's students for many years to come.

We owe this to the parents of Missouri's children who entrust their most precious possession to these schools. Most importantly, we owe this to the children in our charter public schools. They deserve nothing less than the very best educational opportunities.

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