KANSAS CITY — Chaotic closures, low test scores and financial struggles have dogged the charter school movement in Missouri.
Now, legislation under consideration by Gov. Jay Nixon seeks to end those problems with more supervision of the publicly funded but independently run schools.
Charter backers are supporting the increased reporting requirements and other efforts to improve oversight, which are paired with provisions to allow the schools to expand to new areas of the state.
Currently, charter schools are permitted only in Kansas City and St. Louis. And sponsors — generally universities — are responsible for periodically reviewing the charter schools they oversee.
The new law would allow charters in more school systems, including all unaccredited districts and those districts that have been designated as provisionally accredited for three straight academic years starting this fall. Charter schools also could be established in accredited school districts, but only if the local school board wants to sponsor them. Plus, new entities, including private vocational and technical schools, could serve as sponsors.
"I think the big story is that this legislation will give parents in more areas of the state a public education option," said Earl Simms, spokesman for the Missouri Charter Public School Association. "But it also will hold the current and future charter schools accountable."
Since charter schools first began operating more than a decade ago in Missouri, some have been so successful that their test scores regularly exceed state averages, leading to waiting lists. But there also have been a range of other problems: One school filed for bankruptcy, another spent a year in a building without a school occupancy permit, and at least two members of charter boards have been indicted for embezzlement. There have been several messy closures, including one in which school officials asked for donations to help pay teachers who otherwise could lose three months of income.
As early as 2004, an audit found that Missouri's charter schools lack aggressive fiscal and educational oversight by their sponsors and the state. Then in February 2011, a national watchdog group concluded in a report commissioned by Kansas City's Kauffman Foundation that most charter schools in Missouri weren't meeting state proficiency standards and lack both adequate state funding and monitoring.
Because of the concerns, Nixon called for "a comprehensive charter school accountability bill" during his State of the State address in January.
Even without legislation, the state and charter sponsors had been taking steps to shutter schools deemed underperforming. This year alone, about 5,000 students have been displaced as a record number of Missouri charter schools close. Most — about 3,500 in St. Louis and 1,100 in Kansas City — attended charters run by Virginia-based management company Imagine Schools Inc.
The state faulted St. Louis' Imagine-run schools for spending too much on administration and not enough on instruction. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that the schools were entangled in complex real estate deals that resulted in high rent payments while classrooms lacked basics such as textbooks. Across the state, the sponsor of Kansas City's Imagine-run school raised concerns about management problems and low student achievement.
Imagine has defended itself, saying it even wrote off debt to help improve the finances of some of the closing schools. But the whole situation has left state officials looking for ways to avoid a similar situation. To that end, the law would require more disclosure about contracts with school management companies. Entities wanting to manage Missouri charter schools would be required to provide more information about issues that have arisen in other states.
To make closing schools less turbulent, a plan for closure would be required before a charter school could open. Sponsors also would do more to oversee schools finances and would need to develop a performance framework to evaluate schools and intervene when necessary.
The Missouri State Board of Education would evaluate sponsors every three years and notify those not complying. If a charter school sponsor does not address problems, state education officials would conduct a public hearing and recommend corrective action.
Nixon has said the bill contains some "important and significant steps forward" in accountability for charter schools. He also added last month that he will review the bill "very, very carefully" before deciding whether to sign it.
Nixon received about three dozen online messages, letters and emails about the charter school legislation from May 18 to June 6. There was an even split between those calling for him to veto the bill and support it, according to documents obtained through an open-records request from The Associated Press.
In urging Nixon to pass the bill, Amber Simpson of St. Louis wrote that recent charter school closures send the message "that those schools that cannot deliver on the promise of quality education will cease to exist."
"Yet," she added, "there are other wonderful charter schools in STL/KC that are doing an excellent job serving our students and families in most need and who want public options. All Missourians deserve to have that option along with traditional public schools."
But another Missourian, Elizabeth Cassmeyer of St. Louis, questioned: "How can we consider expanding charter schools in the state of Missouri without clear evidence that those schools are doing what they purport to do?"
Associated Press writer Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Mo., contributed to this report.