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GUEST COMMENTARY: Charter schools would help Missouri win federal funds

Friday, May 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:30 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Results are in on Missouri’s first-round application for the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top Fund,” and they are not pretty. The state finished a distant 33rd out of 41 applicants. Forty states and the District of Columbia participated in the first round of the U.S. Department of Education’s competitive grant program, which aims to bolster states who are seeking education reform initiatives that improve student achievement.  

Missouri’s $743.5 million application was hit hard in critical areas, including limits on charter schools and overall conditions for reform in the state. Delaware and Tennessee were the only winners in the first round. Delaware was awarded more than $100 million, and Tennessee, a state in the same suggested bidding range as Missouri, was allotted more than $500 million.

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Here is what some of the reviewers of Missouri’s application had to say:

  • “The state has a charter school law that only allows charter schools to operate in Kansas City and St. Louis.  Although a considerable percentage of students in these locations are in charter schools, the effect of this law limits the educational choices available to students who do not live in these cities.”  
  • “Low points are given to the Missouri proposal on this subsection concerned with charter law because the Missouri charter school law has limits on both geography and sponsors.”
  • “The applicant makes almost no effort in this section of the application to describe the extent to which the State, in addition to information provided under other State Reform Conditions Criteria, has created through law, regulation, or policy, other conditions favorable to education reform or innovation that have increased student achievement or graduation rates, narrowed achievement gaps, or resulted in other important outcomes.”

These statements paint a dire picture of the current state of education reform in Missouri. The real question is: Will Missouri learn its lesson from missing out on the first round of money and work toward reforms that will make us seriously competitive in the second round? Applications for Round Two are due June 1, with winners to be announced in September.  

It is obvious from the comments above that expanding charter school options outside of the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts would dramatically improve the chances of being competitive for part of the $3.4 billion remaining to be awarded. But two bills in the Missouri legislature that would expand access to charter schools to most of the state, SB 838 and HB 2200, have yet to even receive a committee hearing.

Missouri should take note that both first-round winners made moves to expand access to charter schools before submitting their first-round applications.  Furthermore, states that finished close to the Round One winners have already passed, or are currently debating, legislation that would expand charter schools as a way to cross the finish line and stand on the podium with the other expected 10 to 12 winners in Round Two.  

The Missouri House’s budget made significant funding cuts to Missouri education, and the Senate’s budget borrowed from stimulus funds held for next year to restore those cuts. Although legislators will continue to sort out the budget mess in Jefferson City, it is clear that education funding in Missouri is on shaky ground.

This program would be a good way to implement needed education reforms in the state, as well as bolster the state’s coffers. This unprecedented pot of money is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would be a disservice to the children of this state if we let it slip away.

Earl Simms is state director of the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, a not-for-profit organization that supports individualized learning opportunities for all children through issue resolution, community education and civic engagement.  For more information, go to www.cec-mo.org.


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Comments

Mike Martin May 15, 2010 | 2:15 p.m.

God bless multimillionaire investor and Missouri-phile Rex Sinquefield for putting his money where his mouth is, supporting various issues -- like charter schools, lower income taxes, etc. -- with his considerable personal wealth.

BUT -- some disclosure is in order on an op-ed like this.

Two of the four members of the Children’s Education Council of Missouri board of directors -- Mike Podgursky and Bob Heller -- are also board members of Mr. Sinquefield's Show Me Institute.

CEC-MO's executive director Laura Slay -- of St. Louis-based public relations firm Slay and Associates -- is Mr. Sinquefield's publicist and spokesperson. I suspect he and his many organizations together comprise her largest client. http://www.slayandassociates.com

There are many great arguments to be made for charter schools and other ways to improve education, particularly in struggling inner cities where public schools are deeply troubled.

But Missouri has some long-standing problems that -- if they were mitigated -- might reduce the need for charter schools.

In St. Louis for instance, political corruption, failed segregationist and public housing policies (most notably Pruitt-Igoe), and by last count, roughly 6,000 vacant and abandoned buildings -- many of them architecturally stunning -- continue to lay siege to a beautiful American city.

In our own Boone County, property tax cheating is the order of the day for the people most able to fund education, and we are as racially segregated as ever.

Statewide, public education is simply not a core value. It's chronically under-funded at virtually every level.
That's a historical and cultural issue as much as anything, and something sadly for which Missouri is well known.

Expecting children -- especially from low income families -- to do well in such environments is a fool's errand -- charter schools or not.

It would be marvelous if Mr. Sinquefield would turn his considerable talents toward fixing the historical and cultural problems that keep Missouri lagging much of the nation. At least for the time being, charter schools seem a way of simply wiring around those problems.

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