Over the years, I have competed in a number of team sports, particularly soccer. There were times when my team barely squeaked out a win; though it may not have been pretty, the response often was “We’ll take it!” For school choice supporters, Missouri Senate Bill 576 may be one of those moments. If the governor signs the bill into law, charter schools could open in more areas of the state; in turn, charter schools and their authorizers would face increased accountability. Though the bill falls short of ensuring high-quality educational options for all Missouri students, it is a small victory for school choice.
Currently, charter schools operate in Saint Louis and Kansas City. SB 576 would allow charters to open in unaccredited districts and districts that have been provisionally accredited for three years. School districts would also have the power to authorize charter schools, however, in this case, the charter school would still be under the jurisdiction of the local school district. Currently, Riverview Gardens is the only unaccredited school district in which charter schools do not exist. There are nine provisionally accredited districts. Combined, these 10 districts have fewer than 17,000 students. This means less than 2 percent of Missouri school children currently attending a traditional public school might benefit in the coming year from expanded school choice that is outside of district control. Of course, this number could grow if more districts fall into the provisionally accredited category in coming years.
Assuming charter schools open in each of these districts, charter schools would be available for less than 7 percent of students in traditional public schools statewide.
This expansion comes at a cost to charter autonomy. For the bill to pass, a compromise was worked out: Expansion of charter schools for increased accountability of charters and their authorizers. For example, charter authorizers must develop policies for review of charter schools, including a method of rigorous evaluation. Additionally, they must lay out how they will intervene if a charter school fails to meet the standards the authorizer has set. While it is important for failing schools to close, and these regulations seem reasonable, they will lead to increased paperwork. Indeed, some authorizers may need to add to their management staff in order to comply. The increased regulatory burden on authorizers may limit the expansion of new charter schools and may inhibit other colleges and universities from joining the ranks of authorizers.
Though we applaud this expansion of charter schools, we believe students throughout Missouri would benefit from a greater proliferation of school choice. According to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 195 of the 530-plus districts had fewer than 50 percent of their students score proficient or advanced on the state’s mathematics exam for grades three through eight in 2011. In communication arts, the number was 246. In these districts, as well as higher-performing districts, there are many parents who are unsatisfied.
SB 576 expands school choice to a limited number of students, while possibly decreasing the likelihood of additional charters being approved. Though this is a narrow win, it is a win and many students will benefit from this piece of legislation. We will take it.
James V. Shuls is an education policy consultant for the Show-Me
Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy,
and a Doctoral Academy Fellow at the University of Arkansas.