JEFFERSON CITY — President Barack Obama has praised charter schools for their excellence and innovation on more than one occasion. However, assessment test scores in Missouri suggest they may not be any better than traditional public schools.
Charter schools are public institutions held accountable to an individual sponsor rather than a district school board.
In Missouri, both charter schools and traditional public schools are required to meet all standards set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act and the state. This includes conducting the Missouri Assessment Program test. According to 2009 MAP test scores provided by the Missouri education department, charter schools are under performing state averages — and sometimes significantly.
There are 44 charter schools in Missouri. By law, they are only allowed to exist within the Kansas City and St. Louis city school districts. Only students eligible for public school in those districts can be enrolled in charter schools.
Twenty-eight percent of students in Kansas City charter schools tested into the "Proficient" and "Advanced" categories of the communication arts portion of the MAP test. Among charter school students in St. Louis, the average was just above 13 percent. The state average, however, was nearly 48 percent.
Charter schools also fell below the state average for the math section of the MAP test. While the state average for the math section of the MAP test is almost 48 percent of students testing into the "Proficient" and "Advanced" ranges, Kansas City charter schools placed only about 24 percent of students tested into those two categories. St. Louis charter schools were even lower with just above 12 percent.
Only fifth and eighth graders take the science portion of the MAP test. Kansas City charter schools averaged just under 15 percent of students testing into the "Proficient" and "Advanced" ranges, and students in St. Louis charter schools averaged about 7 percent.
The MAP test also assesses specific high school subjects at the conclusion of courses like English II, Algebra I and Biology I. The trends reported above were reflected again in these tests. The state average was the highest, followed by Kansas City charter schools and then St. Louis charter schools.
Jocelyn Strand, DESE director of A+ and charter schools said comparing charter school MAP test scores to state averages might not be fair.
"Typically we compare charter school test scores to the school districts that they're in," Strand said.
Strand said that when compared to their home districts, charter schools are "pretty comparative." However, their home districts are urban areas with many schools classified as "failing." The St. Louis City School District lost its accreditation and no longer has an elected school board. Instead, it's appointed.
Some charter schools are performing at such low levels, they may not remain open much longer.
Strand said charter schools, such as Paideia and Ethel Hedgeman Lyle academies in St. Louis, may not reopen for the 2010-11 academic year.
Franc Flotron, a lobbyist for the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association, said this isn't necessarily a bad thing. He compared charter schools to the business market.
"When they fail, they go out of business," he said. "Traditional public schools that are failing never go out of business."
Students at closing charter schools have the option of enrolling in other charter schools in their area. The problem is that many have long waiting lists. Former charter school students are given no priority when it comes to enrolling in another charter school. They can also return to a traditional district school or enroll in a private school.
Académie Lafayette in Kansas City is an exception to the trend of charter schools performing lower than the state. The school has consistently outperformed all charter schools in the state on the MAP test. With the exception of the fourth grade mathematics MAP test, Académie Lafayette scored higher than the state average in every category by an average of 25 percent.
This particular charter school is a French language immersion school. From the moment students begin their first day of kindergarten, they are taught in French.
The head of community relations for Académie Lafayette, Rachael Gordon, said she attributes the school's high scores to the fact that it's bilingual.
"It stimulates parts of the brain that are otherwise dormant," Gordon said.
The process of learning a second language helps students subconsciously become better problem solvers and think more critically at an earlier age, she said.
Charter schools can be founded a number of ways. Hillary Elliott, Missouri Charter Public Schools Association director of communications, said some are founded by educational management organizations.
"Many are what we call 'Mom and Pop,' a group of individuals who want to start a new school without an affiliate organization," she said.
All charter schools are responsible for finding facilities and a sponsor. Currently, the only sponsors for charter schools in Missouri are four-year colleges and universities. The only other option is the State Board of Education. A contract, called a charter, between the school and sponsoring institution outlines the standards of performance for both operations and students. If a charter school fails to meet these standards, the sponsor may choose to let the charter expire, closing the school.