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This Discussion Guide is part of Community Conversations at FOCUS St. Louis. It is meant to initiate civil discourse around the policies that affect the St. Louis region; to hear each other’s perspective. As is the case with all public policies, this issue is complex and multi-faceted, with many stakeholders. Please keep this in mind as you discuss Charter Schools in your community.

 

Charter Schools


Charter Schools are a form of public schools in which public funds are provided to private organizations, for-profit and not-for-profit, so that the organizations can form and operate schools that serve as an alternative to the traditional public schools. A bill (SB 576, from the 2012 session of the General Assembly) will go into effect on August 28, 2012 that allows charter schools to expand statewide and introduces tougher screening for sponsors including legally binding contracts that include detailed performance standards for attendance and academics. Charter schools may be established in any school district that loses accreditation, and after a three year waiting period, in districts that are provisionally accredited and not making progress toward accreditation. Charter schools can only occur within accredited districts when they are established by the local school board. Prior to this bill, Missouri law only allowed charter schools to operate in the two large urban districts in the state: the City of St. Louis and Kansas City.


Background 


The Missouri General Assembly first authorized charter public schools in 1998, and by 2011, seventeen were operating in St. Louis City. In order to operate, a charter school must have a "charter” – a legal document that defines the mission of the school. Among other things, the charter document must contain explicit academic performance standards.


An important feature of the oversight and governance of charter schools in Missouri is the role played by sponsors. These are institutions of higher education that serve as "accreditation agencies,” certifying that the charter school is fulfilling its educational obligations as well as the goals and objectives included in the charter document.


A recent development involving charter schools in St. Louis was the closure of the five charter schools operated by Imagine. The closure of these schools left 3500 students without classrooms for the coming school year. Officials from the Saint Louis Public Schools, from neighboring school districts and from other charter schools operating in the City have been working this summer to find classroom facilities to accommodate the students who had attended a school operated by Imagine.

 

Key Findings:


A Task Force convened by FOCUS St. Louis examined charter schools in St. Louis and, based on dozens of interviews, reviews of test scores, and examinations of best practices in other states, arrived at the following key observations: 

 

  1. The academic performance of charter schools in St. Louis is mixed. Some charter schools are showing high levels of student performance and demonstrating significant year-by-year improvements in student test results. However, other charter schools have test results that are significantly below those posted by the traditional St. Louis Public School District. Moreover, some of the schools with particularly low test results have been in operation for more than five years, and have shown little progress in year-by-year improvements in student achievement. 
  2. University-based sponsors are supposed to carefully track performance of charter schools, to provide "early warning systems" if the schools are not achieving academic goals, and ultimately, to revoke charters for schools that are not performing satisfactorily. The Task Force found that, in general, sponsors do not provide adequate oversight to the schools they charter. 
  3. There is rough parity in the operational funding of charter schools and traditional public schools. However, the St. Louis Public Schools have bonding authority, and their facility and major capital expenditures have dedicated revenues that are unavailable to charter schools.   

Three Possible Perspectives:

 

Person A believes that charter schools divert resources from the traditional public schools without adding significantly to the educational quality available to St. Louis students. Students would be better off if we left educational resources with the Saint Louis Public Schools, and concentrated our efforts on improving one district instead of scattering our efforts across all the various charter schools in the City.


Person B believes that the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) has had a terrible track record for a long time, and that charter schools should be given a chance to educate students left behind by the traditional public schools in St. Louis. If there are problems with charter schools, fix them. But as long as the SLPS is unaccredited and continues to provide sub-standard education, we need to provide St. Louis parents a viable choice.


Person C believes that competition causes all organizations to improve their performance. Charter schools put pressure on the SLPS, and recent improvements by the traditional public schools in St. Louis are caused by the competition provided by charter schools. Charter schools are thus not only a good option for St. Louis and Kansas City, but should be made available throughout Missouri – a policy that would improve public education across the board.

 

Who else is involved with this issue?

The Missouri Charter Public School Association actively works to promote and improve charter schools in Missouri. The office of the St. Louis Mayor is active in charter school issues, as is the Children's Education Alliance. Finally, virtually all organizations that work on children or school issues, including the National Education Association and the Missouri School Board Association, are involved at some level in policy-making regarding charter schools.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which of the three perspectives above is closest to your own viewpoint? Is there a perspective above with which you strongly disagree?
  2. What effect will expanding charter schools across the state have on accredited and non-accredited school districts?
  3. Will the screening provision of the new bill be strong enough to regulate charter schools? Will they pinpoint poorly performing schools? Or, will competition among charter schools, and between charters and more traditional school districts, provide a self-regulating mechanism: parents will pull their children from poorly performing charter schools, and so charter schools that perform poorly will feel pressure to either improve or to shut down.
  4. Should charter schools be required to meet the same academic performance standards that apply to all other public schools?

Links for further reading:

  1. St. Louis Public Charter Schools: An in-depth look, is the report by the FOCUS Task Force on Charter Schools. 
  2. Delivering on the Promise is a report by the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City that examines charter schools in Kansas City and in St. Louis.
  3. The State of Charter School Authorizing provides an in-depth look at how charter school sponsorship works throughout the nation.
  4. Missouri Charter Public School Association.
  5. June 27,2012 St. Louis Beacon Article: Nixon signing expansion of charter schools in Missouri

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