JEFFERSON CITY — Charter schools may soon be allowed statewide.

In a unanimous vote on Monday, the Senate’s government reform committee passed SB 603, which expands charter school eligibility to municipalities with at least 30,000 residents, as well as counties under charter government. Under current law, charter schools are only allowed in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Charter schools remain controversial. Opponents fear that an exodus of students from public to charter schools would leave the former underfunded. Under the bill, funding would be apportioned based on the number of students in each school.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said she wasn’t worried about destabilizing public schools.

“I think if your school is functioning decently, you’re not going to have a lot of people leave the school,” she said. “In general, I believe that if your school is accomplishing what it should, you’re not going to suffer a huge loss of students.”

O’Laughlin said she hasn’t seen any projections on the number of students that would move to charter schools. She remained confident that school competition would provide better outcomes for students.

“When we talk about it, all we hear about is money,” O’Laughlin said. “It’s always about the money. I want to tie a little closer the money to the outcome. Like in any other product that we buy, I think there should be a little closer tie,” she said.

Some members of O’Laughlin’s own party question just how good that product is. Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, who filibustered similar legislation last year, pointed out that many Missouri charter schools are closing their doors — about one out of every three, according to previous Missourian reporting.

“I don’t understand why anyone would want to expand a failed system,” he said, adding that those opposing the bill will number in the “double digits.”

When asked how many new charter schools would open under SB 603, O’Laughlin said that the demand for charter schools is likely low, concentrating mostly in urban areas. Rural charter schools would be “rare to none,” she said.

O’Laughlin argues that competition will lead to improved conditions in the school system. “If the system recognizes that there’s another option available, then they’re more likely to be responsive to the people who are in the system,” she said.

Libla disagrees.

“They already have the competition, and it hasn’t worked out well for the other charter schools out right now. They fail miserably,” he said.

O’Laughlin argued that comparing failure rates against public schools is flawed. She pointed out that charter schools shut down when they begin to fail, but public schools stay open when they underperform.

“I know that in some places, we have public schools that are failing, and have been failing for a very long time,” she said. “I don’t hear anyone talking about the amount of money that we’re spending there and not getting decent results.”

The bill will move to the Senate floor.

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

  • I'm a Public Safety & Health beat reporter at the Columbia Missourian, with past lives as a data scientist, academic researcher and defense contractor. You can reach me at spencernorris@mail.missouri.edu.

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