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Latest attempt at charter school expansion would target failing schools, not districts

Students at the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls on May 12, 2017, a St. Louis charter school that opened in 2015.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Students at the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, a charter school in St. Louis, in May 2017. The Missouri House of Representatives advanced a bill Monday that would expand charter schools beyond St. Louis and Kansas City.

Missouri lawmakers are making another attempt at expanding independent charter schools outside of the state’s two major cities, this time with a more narrow focus.

The House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Monday voted 7-6 to advance a charter school expansion bill. The legislation allows charter schools to go head-to-head with struggling schools but not entire districts.

Last year, amid high hopes of expanding school choice measures with a newly-elected GOP governor in office, the House passed a bill that opened up all but Missouri’s most rural counties to new independently-run but publicly funded charter schools. The Senate never took the law up.

The current attempt at expansion would authorize the creation of charter schools in any Missouri school district that has at least one building with an annual performance score below 60.

Charter School 101: The basics

The scores are based on attendance, standardized testing and graduation rate (for high schools). They are calculated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Annual Performance Report scores, known as APR, are the main factor in determining if an entire district is accredited.

Rep. Mark Matthiesen, R-Maryland Heights, after voting for the bill said that even in well-performing districts, there can still be “subpar” schools. Parents in those schools should have the option of enrolling their child in a charter school he said, “if they feel that charter school can better meet the needs of their own child.”

Opponents of charter expansion, including Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, who voted against the bill, said charters still lack the accountability needed to open them up beyond St. Louis and Kansas City, where they’ve operated, with mixed success, for nearly 20 years.

“We’ve veered off path” with charter schools, Swan said. “They were to be schools of innovation; they have not become schools of innovation.”

The University City School District, just west of St. Louis, barely held onto full accreditation last year. Brittany Woods Middle School; however, falls below the 60 percent APR threshold that would make it susceptible to competition from a charter school under this law.

“I don’t think it needs direct competition,” said University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin.

Improving social services and bringing in quality teachers is what will boost academic performance, Hardin said.

“We understand we have to do a much better job of making sure our students are successful,” she said.

The full House needs to vote on the bill before it moves to the Senate for consideration.

School kids on city buses

The House Education Committee on Monday also voted out a bill that would allow high school students to ride public transportation to get to school. It’s an effort sought by Columbia Public Schools as a way to save on transportation costs, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

State aid for school transportation has been chronically underfunded, putting more burden on districts to fund the cost of transporting kids.

Buses ridden by students would be staffed with a monitor and equipped with the flashing stop signs and lighting seen on yellow school buses. Drivers would have to pass background checks.

A spokesman for Metro, which operates buses in St. Louis and St. Louis County, said the transit authority was not aware of any interest from school districts to put students on public buses.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin contributed to this story.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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