Charter schools beyond STL and KC and wider range of sponsors are parts of newly passed bill
The Missouri General Assembly took action Tuesday on one of the top pending issues on its legislative agenda: revamping the state’s laws on charter schools to allow more of them.
The school charter bill, SB576, passed the House by a vote of 99-54. The Senate earlier had approved the measure, 31-2. It now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon who hasn't yet indicated whether he will sign it.
All sides agree that the bill provides more oversight than under current state law. The state Board of Education, for example, must approve new charter-school sponsors -- a move that advocates say will help block sponsors with poor track records.
Specifically, the bill would:
- Allow charter schools to expand beyond the current limits of St. Louis and Kansas City to unaccredited school districts elsewhere in the state; currently, that would be only Riverview Gardens in north St. Louis County. Charters could also be operated in districts after they have been provisionally accredited for three years or in fully accredited districts if sponsored by the local school board. A district with an enrollment of more than 1,550 students could enroll no more than 35 percent of its students in charters it sponsors.
- Expand the list of who could sponsor charters to include the Special Administrative Board in St. Louis, any two-year private vocational or technical school and the newly created Missouri Charter School Commission.
- Create a nine-member commission, whose members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. They would include members from slates recommended by the commissioner of education, the commissioner of higher education, the president pro tem of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the Missouri School Boards Association. The commission could approve proposed charters for sponsorship.
- Spell out policies and procedures that charter school sponsors must follow and require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide guidance in developing those policies. It also requires the state Board of Education to evaluate sponsors every three years and give them time to improve if they come up short; if they still fail to meet guidelines, the board would have final say over any corrective action. If the board removes sponsorship authority from any current sponsor, the commission would become the new sponsor, instead of the board as currently happens.
- Details several new regulations that charter sponsors and schools must follow concerning background checks for employees, definition of high-risk students, collection of data, compliance with state statutes and other areas.
- Requires annual evaluations of charters to detect those under financial stress and require sponsors of such schools to develop a plan to correct the situation.
Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, hailed passage of the bill, which the association had helped to draft and had pushed for during the session.
“We believe it is important that all of Missouri’s families have an opportunity to choose the public educational option best for their children," Thaman said in a statement after the bill passed. "This legislation will provide more families across the state access to quality charter schools held accountable to high standards of academic performance and operational management.
“Missouri’s charter school community welcomes the increased autonomy for increased accountability bargain that is at the heart of the charter school model,” his statement added. “We believe this bill heeds the governor’s call for more accountability on Missouri’s charter public schools, and we are hopeful that he will sign.”
But some critics, including state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said the measure is inadequate. She was among several legislators who cited studies showing that the performance of students at many charter schools lagged behind their counterparts in the local public schools. Still called the bill approved Tuesday “a misguided attempt at reform,’’ and cited the disruption caused by the sudden closing in St. Louis of the Imagine charter schools.