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Missouri Senate passes bill funding charter schools without using public school money

Gateway Science Academy, operated by Concept Schools, spent about $4 million buying an old warehouse in the North Hampton neighborhood to build a middle and high school into.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Gateway Science Academy, a charter school in St. Louis photographed in 2018, spent about $4 million buying an old warehouse in the North Hampton neighborhood to build a middle and high school.

A bill funding Missouri’s charter schools using state money awaits another House vote after members of the Senate passed it on Wednesday.

Senators voted 29-5, with the bill receiving broader bipartisan support compared to the House version, which earned few Democratic votes.

Under the bill House members passed by a vote of 85-67 more than a month ago, millions in public school funds from both Kansas City and St. Louis Public Schools would have been used to fix a so-called “glitch” in the funding formula to make up the difference in charter school funding.

Charter schools, which are independent schools that receive state funding, are for now only located in St. Louis and Kansas City. Currently, public schools receive more money per student than charter schools.

According to the fiscal note on the passed House bill, more than $8 million would have been transferred from the Kansas City Public School District to its area charter schools, while St. Louis Public Schools would have lost around $18 million to charter schools.

Now, under the Senate bill, the state, not the school districts, would pay that difference through an increase in the foundation formula used to determine school funding.

In speaking on the bill after it earned first-round approval in the Senate almost two weeks ago, Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he wants to see public and charter schools treated as similarly as possible.

“Putting some of those dollars in the formula to say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to fully fund the formula, you know, we’re going to make sure that these charters are getting the dollars that they’re entitled to,’ I think it was a good deal,” Rowden said.

The Senate bill received support from some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, who called the bill a good compromise.

“They wanted to take a slice of funding from Kansas City and St. Louis. Now instead of making their slice smaller, we made the whole pie bigger,” Rizzo said.

In addition to funding, the Senate substitute creates several criteria for charter schools in Missouri, such as the condition that any management company that operates schools in Missouri be a nonprofit and requiring charter school board members reside in the state.

The bill also creates provisions and new language on virtual school programs. When asked about that portion of the bill, Rowden said part of it concerns accountability measures.

“I think there was concern about a kid going to a virtual program, maybe being there for a year, maybe it doesn't work out, for whatever reason, they come back to the local school, and all of a sudden that local school is on the hook for whatever loss of learning may have occurred,” Rowden said. “And so we changed the way that some of that accountability goes.”

With the bill passed in the Senate, it now heads to the House for another vote before it goes to the governor. Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said he believes this is the year they will get this legislation passed.

“I think that certainly the direction now that we're heading, it serves to bolster more support from Democrats in St. Louis and Kansas City because it puts them in a position where now they can say they've protected district public dollars, as well as charter public dollars,” Richey said.

Some House Democrats have already expressed greater support for the Senate version as opposed to its predecessor.

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, who worked on the House bill, including adding an amendment that delayed it from going into effect for St. Louis City, called the Senate’s version of the bill historic.

“I think it's a huge investment for urban areas, because this is only going to St. Louis City and Kansas City. This is investing more money into education for charters to be able to be lifted up at the same level as public schools,” Aldridge said. “But it's not taking away from nobody. I think it's a win-win for everybody.

According to Richey, the current plan is to take up the Senate’s version without asking for a conference committee.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.