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Charter school sponsorship not always seen as higher education’s higher calling

Jared Leppert, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, conducts a learning test with a student at St. Louis College Prep on Monday, May 8, 2017. The charter school hired Leppert as an intern.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Jared Leppert, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, conducts a learning test with a student at St. Louis College Prep. The charter school hired Leppert as an intern from UMSL, which sponsors the school.

Missouri lawmakers assigned higher education institutions primary oversight of charter schools when authorizing them 20 years ago. Universities know a thing or two about schools, after all.

It’s not the norm when it comes to charter schools in the United States, though, as a majority of the 42 states (and Washington, D.C.) put the independent schools’ governance in the hands of a local school board.
It’s a logical choice to give universities the job of making sure these schools do everything they promise they will — and closing them if they don’t, according to National Association of Charter School Authorizers president Greg Richmond.

“I think universities can do a great job at sponsoring charter schools,” he said. “No. 1, they’re educational institutions, so they know something about education. And they have a lot of advantages to do the work well.”

Some higher education institutions in Missouri are more focused on compliance and accountability rather than providing teacher support for charter schools, which are tuition-free public schools that operate independently from local school districts.

Others have stepped away from sponsorship because it doesn’t fit into the school’s mission or they’re too far away from St. Louis to provide much support or oversight.

Close relationship or hands off?


There are advantages to charter schools having the full resources of a university at their fingertips. St. Louis College Prep was able to hire a graduate student from its sponsor, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to serve as a part-time social worker in the high school.

“It actually saved us a ton of money,” College Prep executive director Mike Malone said.

Malone described the role of UMSL’s charter school office, which also provides small teacher training grants, as that of a good sports coach.

“He’s teaching you how to kick the right way, but ... if you’re not doing your job he pulls you off the field and sits you on the bench,” Malone said.

Bill Mendelsohn is UMSL charter school office's executive director. He believes the sponsor should have “a very, very close relationship with the school, and the school leaders.” But Richmond says not every sponsor thinks that way.

“Frankly, it’s a lot of hands-off monitoring,” he said.

That’s the University of Missouri-Columbia’s approach. It closed two St. Louis charter schools last year.

Trina Clark James, the founder of one of those closed schools, Jamaa Learning Center, said it got little support. “They just weren’t as invested,” she said.

But Lisa Weaver at Mizzou’s charter office argued that Jamaa had consultants to advise on staff development and financial management, adding, “but I think we need to make it clear that it is not our job to provide support. As a sponsor, our job is to hold them accountable to their charter.”

Why sponsor?

Remember how Richmond said colleges and universities can be great sponsors? There’s more to that.

“No university exists for the purpose of monitoring charter schools,” he said. “They exist to run their university, and chartering is always just a side line, rather than a core function of a university.”

So, why do it? Well, there is some, but not a lot, of state funding that comes to sponsors — 1.5 percent of what goes to each student in their charter schools.

“Yeah, I don’t think anybody’s getting rich off of that,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “To do authorizing right, you gotta have staff.”

And staff is where most of the money goes, because, in Missouri, the money allocated to a sponsor has to be used for monitoring its schools.

Sponsoring one or two schools nets a sponsor less than $125,000 a year. UMSL has the largest charter school portfolios of any sponsors in St. Louis, collecting $361,494 last year. With only two staff members in the office, Mendelsohn said his office was able to spend $115,326 on grants to the charter schools.

Another reason to a sponsor: Lawmakers asked colleges like Missouri S&T and Southeast Missouri State University to do it when charters were introduced. But S&T no longer sponsors and SEMO never expanded beyond its first one. Both schools cited distance from St. Louis as a reason they stopped or aren’t expanding.

For others, it fits into the college’s mission.

“It’s fundamentally an expression of our outreach and service to the community,” Saint Louis University Assistant Provost Steve Sanchez said.

And because university interest in sponsoring charter schools is subject to change, more states are creating independent commissions to exclusively authorize them, which Missouri did in 2012. The commission has sponsored one school in Kansas City so far.

St. Louis Public Radio is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators, which also governs UMSL and Mizzou. The radio station is editorially independent.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.