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Charter school bill seeks broad-based changes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2012 - If a bill filed for the new session of the Missouri legislature passes, charter schools could spread to more areas of the state, be sponsored by more universities, have access to more buildings and have a new commission to add to the mix.

But with other education issues in play -- vouchers, teacher tenure, what to do about students who want to transfer out of unaccredited school districts -- winning passage for the charter bill now in the Senate, is far from assured.

"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a concern," said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association about the likelihood that the bill would become a Christmas tree to hang other education issues on. The bill includes many issues his group favors.

"We really believe that it's important for this charter package to have its own separate course, but I have heard that comment made, let's just put everything into a large education reform bill. We've already had that argument."

Adds Aaron Baker, a legislative aide to the sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Bill Stouffer, a Republican from Napton in central Missouri:

"Would we welcome other issues on top of that? No. Not at all. He'd try to fight that off because that would make it not passable."

What he wants, Baker said, is legislation to help small rural schools that need flexibility as well as urban schools where students have struggled to improve.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the department does not typically weigh in on pending legislation, though during the session members of its staff may be called upon to testify or provide information.

What the Bill Says

Stouffer's bill is mirrored by one introduced in the House by Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, and co-sponsored by several other members, including House Speaker Steven Tilley of Perryville and Scott Dieckhaus of Washington, chairman of the House Education Committee. Both men are Republicans.

Its key provisions are to:

  • Create the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, a nine-member panel appointed by the governor that would sponsor charter schools or take over existing schools if their original sponsor drops out.
  • Expand charter schools beyond their current geographical boundaries of St. Louis and Kansas City to include unaccredited districts, provisionally accredited districts and districts accredited without provisions if the charters are sponsored by the local school board.
  • Give sponsorship authority to more colleges and universities by removing the restriction that they have their primary campus in the school district or a county adjacent to the county in which the district is located.
  • Allow the State Board of Education to hear any appeal of a decision by a sponsor to revoke a charter. Currently, such cases go the courts, not the board.
  • Give a charter school the right to buy or lease unused school facilities from a district at fair market value, as well as the right of first refusal if the district wants to sell or lease the facility to another group.
  • Require a performance contract between any charter and its sponsor that spells out clearly the standards the school must meet as well as the course that would be followed if the school falls short.
  • Collect student achievement data during the first year of a school's existence, to serve as a baseline that could be used to measure future improvement.

The Commission and Contracts

Of all of the provisions in the bill, Thaman said the one he would not want to do without is the commission. With nine members named by the governor from slates recommended by the commissioner of education, the commissioner of higher education, leaders of the House and Senate as well as the governor's office, it would strengthen schools by providing more oversight as well as a better alternative if a sponsor finds the school is falling short, he said.

"We're finding that university sponsors have a very specific small number of schools they want to be involved in," he added, "and that's OK if that is where their interest lies. We want to make sure a university can sponsor schools that fit the university's mission and not have to take schools just because there is no other avenue for sponsorship.

"Currently, if the state board determines that a sponsor is not handling its responsibilities properly, it has the authority to take that sponsor's authority away. Then, responsibility for that charter moves automatically to the state board, which does not have the capacity and does not have the interest to be responsible for a small number of charter schools."

The commission, Thaman said, would change all that.

"If the state board determined that a sponsor no longer had its authority," he said, "those schools would automatically roll over to the commission. It doesn't place schools at risk, and it lets the state board do a better job of making decisions. Now, if I take away their right to be a sponsor, then I'm in charge of five schools, and I don't want that responsibility. It streamlines the process."

Similarly, Thaman said, requiring performance contracts makes the responsibilities of the school and the sponsor much clearer, as well as the process that must follow if performance standards are not met. Such arrangements are fairly standard in other states that have charter schools, he said.

"It's really become a best practice nationally to be sure there is some contractual agreement established between the authorizer and the school," he said. "It brings clarity for the school, and it increases the ability for sponsor to hold the school properly accountable.

"Right now, by statute, the charter becomes the agreement. The problem with that is that charter is filled with mission and vision and goals and logistical details, but it's a plan, not a contractual agreement. So it becomes very, very challenging for a sponsor to use that document to hold the school accountable."

Other Provisions

Expanding charter schools beyond St. Louis and Kansas City is a key part of the bill, Thaman said, adding that he has heard from places like Columbia and Springfield eager to have that authority. But, he added, the change won't necessarily be easily accepted by lawmakers from outstate.

"We really went for a limited expansion," he said, "but even as limited as what is in there will be an uphill challenge. We believe that school districts should have the right to sponsor schools if they so choose. We still believe an awful lot of work needs to be done to assure those districts and those folks not in urban areas that it's not an effort to force charters into their communities. It's designed to give them a choice if they so choose to exercise that right."

By moving appeals of charter revocations from the courts to the state board, Thaman said, a possibly expensive legal fight can be avoided.

"Right now, sponsors fear litigation and the costs tied to litigation," he explained. "An appeals process in the court is very costly. We would like to see that changed from judicial review to a review by the state board. That helps to remove that barrier for sponsors to close poorly performing schools."

As far as making vacant school buildings available to charters at market value, Thaman said such a policy could be a positive for all parties concerned.

"In St. Louis right now," he said, "we are aware of charter groups who have agreed to that market value price and are looking at that, but nobody has actually purchased a building. Our concern is that market value is extremely expensive, and given the amount of money that would have to go to renovations, just to bring them up to code would be cost-prohibitive.

"We are looking for some kind of reasonable solution there. These are public buildings. They belong to taxpayers. The idea that charter schools can't buy buildings that are already public is something that has to be addressed. Even if they lease a building and pay for the renovation, if the charter is not successful, the building goes back to the district and they benefit from the work that has been done."

In terms of using first-year student achievement scores as the baseline for measuring future growth, Thaman acknowledged that practice could put new charters in an uncomfortable spotlight because most of them say that students coming to them for the first time typically score low on standardized tests. But, he said, such measurements are at the heart of what charter schools are supposed to do -- use different methods to achieve different results.

"It does put pressure on them," Thaman said, "but that's the accountability commitment that charter schools make: We're going to identify students' levels of ability when they first enter, and we're going to move that forward. That's part of the autonomy for accountability bargain. Charter schools, if anything, expect to be held to a higher level of accountability."

Shadow of turner case

One idea that is not included in the bill but has been making the rounds of local educators would combine charter school expansion with the effort to settle what has become known as the Turner case. 

Existing law, upheld in 2010 by the Missouri Supreme Court, allows students living in unaccredited school districts -- currently St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and as of Jan. 1, Kansas City -- to transfer to nearby districts. Their home district would pay the tuition and transportation costs, and the receiving districts would have no say over how many students they would take.

The often-delayed trial in St. Louis County Circuit Court to iron out the details of how to put the law into effect is now scheduled for March. Efforts to settle the issue legislatively failed last year, in part because of the other education topics that may still be added to the charter school bill.

But some districts in St. Louis County have begun talking about possibly using vacant St. Louis Public School buildings to start charter schools within the city; that way, the argument goes, students would not be forced to attend unaccredited schools, the city school district would not be hit with costs that could make it go bankrupt, and suburban districts would not have to brace themselves for overcrowding.

The county districts do not have the authority now to sponsor charters in the city, and Thaman said that the charter bill does not include such a change, at least not at this early stage in the legislative session. But he thinks it could be a worthwhile addition.

"If suburban districts felt that they wanted to exercise their ability to sponsor a school and place that school in a district where the children reside, we would see that as a win-win," he said.