Principal Joelle Quoirin once viewed turning La Petite Ecole into a charter school as a clear pathway to making language instruction more available in Columbia.
But the plan to convert the private dual-language French immersion school into an independent public school hit a roadblock when Quoirin realized that the only entity allowed to sponsor a charter school in Columbia, the local school board, would not do so.
Quoirin is hoping for a state law change that could expand charter schools to midsized Missouri cities by allowing the schools to seek sponsorship from groups that have been historically more inclined to provide it, such as universities and the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.
Two Columbia-area legislators are ready to help charter schools advance and could play key roles. Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, chairs the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, schedules which bills come up for debate in the Senate through his role as Senate majority leader.
But disruptions caused by the coronavirus have made it uncertain how much legislation the General Assembly will pass this year. As lawmakers prepare to regroup Monday, it could be difficult to pass anything other than the state budget during the regular session, though there might be a special session during the summer.
The local situation mirrors a statewide debate, with school choice advocates arguing that charter schools could improve education and increase options for families, while expansion opponents say they could damage traditional public education and create inefficiencies.
Charter schools run independently of most public school regulations but are government-funded and free to attend. The Columbia Board of Education and local teacher groups oppose their expansion, worried that it would harm the district by drawing away funding without reducing costs at traditional public schools.
With a few exceptions, such as school board sponsorship, charter schools are permitted only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Missouri legislators have proposed several bills that would allow charter schools in dozens more districts. They could be established within the state’s four charter counties, all of which are in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, and in municipalities with populations of more than 30,000.
It isn’t clear if there is enough demand in Columbia to fuel a significant charter school presence even if expansion becomes easier. While Quoirin says La Petite Ecole “would be first in line to apply” for charter school status, no other proposals have surfaced.
Directors of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, Missouri Charter Public School Commission and Charter School Operations at MU knew of no other organizations hoping to open a charter school in Columbia.
“I don’t know if there are people sitting out there waiting (for charter school expansion) that have a fleshed-out plan,” said Gerry Kettenbach, director of MU Charter School Operations. But in his experience, those who approach a sponsor with a complete proposal often have a less well-developed plan than those that consult with the sponsor earlier in the process.
Asked if they had any interest in expanding into Columbia, several multi-state charter school networks that already manage schools in St. Louis or Kansas City gave negative or noncommittal responses.
“We’ve not considered that at all, and that’s not on our radar,” a representative of Citizens of the World Charter Schools in Kansas City said. Representatives of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Open Sky Education and Concept Schools said deciding whether they are a good fit for a new community is a complex process.
KIPP spokesperson Maria Alcón-Heraux said that when asked to expand to a new area, the network must consider whether it has the staff and financing to do so, especially because government funding only kicks in when the school opens. Local support and the need for a KIPP school are also important factors.
Because parents must choose to send their children to a charter school rather than having them assigned there, prospective charter schools have to be sure demand is high enough to sustain them.
Add to the landscape
Charter schools are supposed to be approved only if they add something to the educational landscape, such as an educational method or academic focus.
La Petite Ecole, which offers instruction in both French and English in a Montessori setting, might fit that bill. But it has to compete with public schools that offer education for free.
Making La Petite Ecole a charter school would remove financial barriers for families, Quoirin said, and she is confident it would increase enrollment. The school, housed in a Community of Christ Church building but not affiliated with the church, currently has about 50 students in its day program ranging from ages 18 months through fifth grade.
Increased enrollment is what the Columbia School Board fears. Like boards in many districts, it opposes charter schools on the grounds that they take money away from traditional public schools.
District spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said that 100 students choosing to attend charter schools could cost the district $1.2 million in revenue without cutting costs in a comparable way.
“We couldn’t reduce staffing if 100 elementary kids from 21 different schools and different grade levels left to attend a charter school,” Baumstark said. “Enrollment in a charter wouldn’t all come from one place.”
The legislature’s oversight division staff estimated that allowing charter schools in 36 additional school districts could divert up to $245 million from traditional public schools.
According to previous Missourian reporting, charter school opponents said at a bill hearing in January that about 1,000 charter schools have failed nationwide and that districts with charter schools are less efficient, spending a higher percentage of money on facilities rather than directly on education.
Opponents have also raised concerns about accountability because charter schools do not have to be overseen by locally elected school boards and say charter schools have not enrolled their fair share of students with disabilities.
Proponents of expansion counter that charter schools provide additional affordable choices when local public schools perform poorly or aren’t responsive to parent concerns. Some suggest that increased competition from charter schools could incentivize underperforming traditional public schools to improve.
Even when public schools are doing well, allowing charter school expansion could provide free access to schools with unique curriculums or programs that aren’t offered in public schools, such as La Petite Ecole.
Quoirinsaid becoming a charter school could help her offer support to her teachers and respond to emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic, which required an abrupt shift to online education.
She also would like more families to be able to afford the school, though she already offers need-based partial-tuition scholarships to about 20% of students. She declined to say how much tuition costs. But she said her goal is for “the school to be for everyone, not just those who can afford the tuition.”
The bills would allow charter schools in municipalities of more than 30,000 people and in charter counties.
Both bills, which were voted out of committee, also include accountability measures to ensure charter schools close or go on probation if students underperform in math and English compared to other local schools.
Bills aiming to restrict charter schools were also proposed, but not one has advanced. For example, House Minority Leader Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, sponsored a bill that would allow district residents to vote on approving new charter schools.
Charter school opponents lost a key ally when Sen. Gary Romine left the Senate. Romine, who joined a bipartisan filibuster against charter schools last year, had proposed a bill that would phase out all charter schools not sponsored by school districts. Gov. Mike Parson appointed Romine to the State Tax Commission earlier this year.
While positions on charter schools cross party lines, both Democratic representatives from Columbia oppose charter expansion.
Reps. Kip Kendrick and Martha Stevens both said the vast majority of constituents who contact them about charter schools are against expansion.
The Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri National Education Association, two teacher’ groups with hundreds of members in Columbia Public Schools, oppose charter school expansion.
Kendrick said constituents who have expressed opposition also include parents who are concerned about how charter schools could affect their children’s education.
Kendrick worries that charter schools would pull too much funding from public schools. He also said the semi-autonomous and lottery schools in the district already give parents options while still being held to the same standards as traditional public schools and kept under local authority.
CPS lottery schools offer focused curriculum in STEM, STEAM, expressive arts, project-based learning and independent guided education, according to Baumstark.
But it may be local Republican legislators who will have more sway over the bills’ outcome.
Rowden, the Senate majority leader, is supportive of charter schools.
“There are kids in the state that were born into poverty” and are now forced to go to a failing public school, Rowden said. “Until we fix some of those issues, I’m going to keep fighting to give parents a choice.”
Columbia isn’t one of those failing districts. Rowden said most local schools are doing well and the market will dictate whether charter schools appear here.
“If there’s enough parents that think the schools are doing a phenomenal job, then (a charter school) is not going to be successful,” he said.
Charter schools have well-known supporters including school choice advocate Rex Sinquefield, one of the biggest political donors in the state. He recently gave $150,000 to Missouri Forward, a political action committee that Rowden raises money for and that could support his campaign.
Rowden said he hasn’t spoken with Sinquefield or his lobbyists about charter schools and isn’t sure if Sinquefield is pushing for expansion this year.
On the House side, Basye is a proponent of charter schools, though he said he mostly hears from charter school opponents connected to public schools that “regurgitate misinformation” about charters.
Basye said it makes sense that no constituents have contacted him in support of charter schools yet becayse it could take years for one to open after an expansion bill passed. But he said parents’ complaints about public schools show the need for school choice.
Major complaints include concerns about discipline, with some students allowed to disrupt others’ learning and children being “indoctrinated” with beliefs parents oppose, Basye said.
For example, an LGBT club was allowed to display posters about various sexual orientations and genders at a local middle school, an incident that led Basye to propose a bill ensuring parents would have the right to be notified and opt their children out of sexuality-related material.
According to previous Missourian reporting, Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, also mentioned LGBT clubs during a legislative forum on education in October 2019 in Columbia. She said calls from parents about such clubs brought her to support charter school expansion.
More recently, Reisch said she would need to study specific legislation before taking a stance on charter school expansion.
It isn’t clear that a charter school could address the issues Basye and Reisch have said their constituents are concerned about.
Asked if charter schools can be founded around specific values, Douglas Thaman, director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said some charter schools are focused on “character education,” emphasizing virtues such as respect, honesty and commitment.
But the schools must be nonsectarian, and Thaman said they have to follow the same laws as other public schools and wouldn’t have any more right to forbid an LGBT club.
Kettenbach, director of MU Charter School Operations, said supporters believe that charter schools’ mere existence can give parents leverage with schools as they select among competing options. The argument, he said, is that “their very presence would make the local public schools up their game.”
Mawa Iqbal contributed to this story.