University-sponsored charter schools have mixed success

Missouri School Boards’ Association deputy executive director Brent Ghan: “They’re using public money, but they’re not as accountable for that public money."

Director of Charter School Operations Gerry Kettenbach Courtesy of MU Charter School Operations

Public charter schools have been an alternative for K-12 students in Kansas City and St. Louis since 2000, and as of a state policy change in 2012, the overwhelming majority of them are operated by higher-education institutions around the state — mostly by UM System schools.

Although charter schools were set up in Missouri to give students in struggling public schools access to higher-quality education, the results of charter schools, including those run by MU, have been mixed.

The MU Office of Charter School Operations currently sponsors six schools with a total of 10 locations in Kansas City and St. Louis. Gerry Kettenbach, the office’s director, said that because many students come to the university from these cities and then go work there after they graduate, the university has a stake in primary and secondary education in those areas.

“Public charters are probably one of the bigger pieces of the school choice movement,” Kettenbach said. “What the school choice movement says is that for your tax dollars, you ought to have more than just the local school to go to, so charters were born.”

Charter school sponsors like MU do not put any funding toward the school, since charter schools receive mostly public funds, such as local tax levies, and can also conduct additional fundraising efforts. Charter schools, like public schools, receive a portion of their state funding based on the number of students who attend the school. So when a student transfers from a public school to a charter school, they take some state funding with them. When the state routes funding to a charter school, a percentage goes to the sponsors of the schools to cover operational costs.

Having an outside entity like a university oversee the performance of a school is what distinguishes a charter school from a traditional public school — and also what many critics of charter schools say is their fundamental flaw. Unlike typical public schools, charter schools are not accredited by the state, which means they are not held accountable if they are not meeting state performance standards.

“They’re using public money, but they’re not as accountable for that public money,” said Brent Ghan, the deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

School accreditation in Missouri is largely determined by an annual Academic Performance Report score, which is calculated by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. APR scores are based on factors such as test scores, attendance and graduation rates, among other things. If a public school does not receive at least 70 percent of the possible points on the report, it is considered unaccredited or provisionally accredited.

Of the charter schools that MU sponsors, only four of the six would be considered fully accredited by public school standards, according to their 2016 APR scores.

One, Ewing Marion Kauffman School, is among the highest-performing secondary schools in Kansas City and scored 100 percent of the possible points on the 2016 APR. But the five Confluence Academy campuses collectively received just above 50 percent of the possible points, which would deem them only provisionally accredited if they were held to public school standards. The average for St. Louis public schools and charters was 74.6 percent.

Another MU charter in St. Louis, Carondelet Leadership Academy, also received an APR score that would deem it provisionally accredited.

The Office of Charter School Operations closed two schools after the 2015-2016 school year because of suboptimal performance: Jamaa Learning Center received 43.6 percent, and Better Learning Communities Academy received 28 percent.

Another criticism charter schools often draw is that they divert students — and the funding they bring — from local public schools.

Kettenbach said that though the public school no longer receives those funds, it no longer bears the costs associated with educating the student who has transferred out.

However, Ghan said it isn’t that simple.

“You still have your teachers to pay, you still have your facilities to operate, so it is not as simple as saying, ‘Well, when a child leaves, and the money follows that child, therefore you don’t have as much cost to educate kids,’” he said. “Really, the cost doesn’t change that much if some kids leave. You basically retain the same operating costs.”

Public schools in St. Louis have seen this happen since the rise of charter schools began 17 years ago. Sarah Potter, communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said there has been a distinct fall in enrollment in St. Louis public schools from 1994 to 2016 — part of this, however, could be families moving away from the school districts.

If a public school has been deemed either unaccredited or provisionally accredited, students who attended that school are allowed to transfer to a charter school that has been established in the area.

As the state law stands, charter schools can only be established in urban areas, or, if they are in a non-urban school district, they must be sponsored by local school boards. Currently, no school district outside of St. Louis or Kansas City has done so. Conservatives in the state legislature have worked to expand school choice beyond that.

Although past legislation to expand charter schools in the state was stopped by former Gov. Jay Nixon, Gov. Eric Greitens has signaled support for the school choice movement, and lawmakers have responded.

Rep. Rebecca Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, is championing a bill that would allow charter schools to be established by entities like universities or other potential sponsors outside of unaccredited or struggling school districts. This would mean that students would be eligible to transfer from public schools that are not deemed unaccredited.

Roeber declined to comment because the bill isn’t out of committee.

The Missouri School Boards’ Association has testified against the bill. Ghan said that expanding charter schools could divert resources away from public schools, and smaller school districts will not likely have the student populations to justify the creation of a charter school regardless.

“Charter schools are not a magic bullet, and there doesn’t seem to be a good rationale to us to expand charter schools when their performance has been mixed at best,” he said.

Edited by Kyle LaHucik | klahucik@themaneater.com

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