Recently the Columbia Daily Tribune published Bob Roper’s commentary calling for the expansion of charter schools beyond the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts. We'd like to set the record straight about the history of charter schools (especially in Missouri) and the current educational climate.
The original idea for charter schools came from AFT union leader Al Shanker in 1992. They were to have some relief from regulations that would allow them to be “incubators of innovations” whose successes could be replicated in other public schools. This has not been the case, nor have charter schools been “sweeping the nation,” as suggested in the previous article. The figure of 7,000 charters in the U.S. as mentioned in that article would be just 7% of the total number of public schools in our country.
In some areas, including Florida, charters have been opened by entrepreneurs, including hedge fund managers, with little if any experience in school management. For-profit charters can be a very lucrative business with owners and family members enriching themselves with taxpayer dollars. Profit becomes more important than student achievement.
As retired educators who have had experience with charter schools in the U.S. Department of Education and Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), we have concerns about the law under which charters currently operate. Charter schools were authorized by law in Missouri more than 20 years ago, but only within the Kansas City and St. Louis districts. One glaring factor that cannot be overlooked is that 42% of charters opened in those districts have failed. Closed mostly because of poor academic performance or financial issues. Those closings have been costly to Missouri taxpayers. They received close to $800 million for start-up and operation. One closed St. Louis charter was overpaid $1.4 million after falsifying attendance records. To make matters worse, state assets and resources purchased with those millions of dollars were never recovered by the state when those schools closed.
There are charter schools that are successful in meeting the needs of the students they serve. However, as Missouri moves forward, the current 20-year-old law has been amended, tweaked, revised and become a haven for lawsuits — lawsuits where state funds are spent (by charter managers) to sue the state! The contradictions and vagueness of the law lead to many different interpretations.
Before charter schools are expanded, a total rewrite of the law is necessary. Areas that must be addressed include:
Charter school governing boards. All public schools have elected school boards except public charter schools. Their boards — selected by the managers of the schools — are given millions of taxpayer dollars to operate their schools with no accountability to local taxpayers. Board members are not required to be voting citizens of the district where their school operates nor to be citizens of the state of Missouri. They spend state money without any accountability to Missouri tax payers.
Accountability for poor performance. Missouri’s Department of Education 2017-18 performance data reports the 10 worst-performing school systems in the state were charter schools. Current charter law has no conditions requiring poor-performing schools to close. The Department of Education cannot close a charter school. As a result, some poor-performing charter schools, such as Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology in Kansas City, took over a decade to shut down. The charter school law must give DESE the power to close unsuccessful charters and retain their assets to protect Missouri’s state property.
Public school laws. There is an ongoing struggle as to which public school laws charters have to follow and which they do not. For example, is charter enrollment open to all district students, or are there limitations as to which students qualify?
Advocates for school choice may not be aware that many school districts in our state do offer choices such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) schools or fine arts. These choices are happening within the current K-12 public schools. More emphasis needs to be placed on these options.
If Missouri citizens want to expand charter schools in our state, let’s get serious about fixing the many challenges in the current law. It will be a huge mistake to expand charter schools without necessary changes. No more rewrites, edits or tweaks. Start over. We have learned much over the past 20-some years. Let’s get it right this time.
Curt Fuchs and Carole Kennedy are retired educators from Columbia Public Schools.