Lawmakers revisit statewide charter school expansion

State lawmakers took testimony on Tuesday about possible legislation to allow charter schools to operate statewide. (Garrett Bergquist)

Charter school advocates on Tuesday said they believed their successes in St. Louis and Kansas City could be replicated statewide.

Missouri's two largest cities have allowed charter schools for close to 20 years. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, charter schools are considered public schools and may draw students from anywhere within a defined geographic area. State lawmakers have considered allowing charter schools all over the state in past legislative sessions and revisited the issue during a Tuesday morning hearing.

Robbyn Wahby, the executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, said the repeated closures of charter schools in the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts are a sign of accountability, not weakness. Wahby said unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can be closed if they don't meet the performance goals spelled out in their charter.

"If they don't perform, they close. They're not allowed to stay in perpetuity, opening and performing at a low level," she said.

Much of the debate surrounding charter schools in Missouri concerns those performance standards. Brent Ghan, the deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association, said charter schools don't face the same scrutiny traditional public schools do because they aren't subject to Missouri's school accreditation process.

Some charter school advocates agree clearer standards are needed. Awais Sufi, the CEO of the nonprofit SchoolSmart Kansas City, said the state needs uniform performance standards for all school types. Sufi said charter schools suffer serious consequences if they don't work, and district schools should face similar consequences.

Matt Michaelson, the government relations manager for the Missouri State Teachers' Association, said his organization would back charter schools if they were held accountable to local school boards.

"They're able to give accountability for that next election," he said. "If those schools aren't performing, citizens can go to their elected school board members and they can voice their concerns."

There is no active legislation dealing with charter school expansion. If lawmakers decide they want to pursue this, the earliest they could file a bill is Dec. 1.

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