JEFFERSON CITY — Carmen Ward’s teenage son Paul was diagnosed with autism and intellectual disabilities at the age of five.

Paul bounced around public and private elementary schools in St. Louis for years, but it wasn’t until he reached fifth grade that Ward found somewhere that met her son’s special educational needs: KIPP St. Louis Public Schools, part of a national nonprofit network of public charter schools.

Ward was able to enroll her son there because St. Louis is one of two cities in Missouri where charter schools can operate, Kansas City being the other. There is a lot of opposition to expanding charter schools beyond those borders for many reasons, including fear of financial hardship for public school districts and lack of accountability.

But Ward believes it’s for the best.

Paul is now a sophomore at KIPP St. Louis High School, and Ward is pleased with his progress. So pleased, in fact that both she and Paul drove down from St. Louis Tuesday morning to testify to the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education in support of House Bill 581, which would expand charter school operations to any city with more than 30,000 residents.

“His reading has improved beyond my expectations, and I have seen a drastic improvement in his mathematics skills,” Ward told the committee.

Ward joined a chorus of other Missouri parents, teachers and education stakeholders in sharing emotional testimony about how school choice has opened access to quality education when traditional public schools could not provide one.

Most Missouri cities and towns assign traditional public school districts based on residency. Veteran educator and committee chair Rep. Rebecca Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit is sponsoring this bill because charter schools can fill the cracks in those traditional districts.

“I am not against traditional public schools,” Roeber said. “However, when they are not working for kids, families should have other options.”

Vicechair of the committee Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, who represents some constituents who send their children to public schools in Columbia, said he is in favor of the intent behind the bill. “I’m very supportive of parental choice, whether it be for a public, private or charter school,” he said.

Although compelling personal stories drew sympathies from both sides of the debate, some committee members and public education advocates don’t think opening more charter schools is the answer to improving public education. Draining already strained school funding bases and a lack of local a control are among opponents’ chief concerns.

“There are limited resources in our state,” said Bill Nicely, superintendent of Kearney School District Board of Education, which offers a number of vocational training programs. “The (3,500 student) district pushes the funding envelope to create these programs.

“When we are faced with charter school expansion down the road, that could take kids away in an unpredictable way that I can’t plan for,” Nicely said. “This bill doesn’t provide a level playing field for choice to occur in a responsible way.”

Taking money away from traditional public schools is also a concern of the Columbia School Board, which released a legislative priorities memorandum last November. In it, the district explicitly opposes “redirecting resources from public schools to unproven charter schools.”

District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said Tuesday that its stance has not wavered.

In addition to funding concerns, opponents of the bill argued that because charter schools are not governed by publicly elected school boards, they are less attune to the educational needs of the communities they serve.

“We’ve got a charter school law that’s designed to say yes regardless of impact, regardless of need. There’s no intelligence at the higher level,” said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association.

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, charter schools in Missouri can be sponsored by the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, a statewide governing body made up of gubernatorial appointees; colleges and universities; or school boards in St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. Fajen said that’s part of the problem with the bill. “We believe charter schools should be sponsored by the local school districts,” he said.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

  • Kathryn Palmer is an education reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate student at the MU School of Journalism. She can be reached at kathryn.palmer@mail.missouri.edu

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