This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 9, 2008 - Since opening their doors in 1999 in Kansas City and a few years later in St. Louis, charter schools have continued to claim a growing share of school-age children in these two cities. As of last fall, about 1 in every five students in each city had enrolled in charter schools, a trend cited by some as proof that charters are gaining acceptance and are producing better results than traditional public schools.
But Missouri has yet to fund a comprehensive study to separate fact from hype about charters. Research is essential to determine if charter schools are living up to their promise. After all, charters have been exempted from state rules and regulations so that they can be free to try new ways to help at-risk children learn.
Some pro-charter groups say their schools already are being evaluated through Missouri Assessment Program scores. But opponents say that comparing MAP scores between students in charter and regular public schools doesn't begin to answer fundamental and complex questions about student achievement. Moreover, anecdotal information about charter schools is no substitute for research.
Scientific Approach Missing
"You need to have a very good study," says William Tate, chairman of the Department of Education at Washington University. "I don't know how anyone can make a judgment about quality based on a MAP score. Any snapshot of one particular year doesn't tell you anything. It's absolute fool's gold. A longitudinal study is the only way to know how well students are doing."
So far, the state has not financed a comprehensive study of its 27 charter schools, 10 in St. Louis and 17 in Kansas City, with a combined total enrollment of roughly 14,000 children from the two cities.
Inaction by the Missouri Legislature may be the chief culprit. When state lawmakers authorized charter schools (through SB 781 in 1998), they added a requirement for a state evaluation of the schools. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is supposed to commission a study to compare charter school students with a comparable group of students from traditional schools. For the most part, lawmakers have refused to fund this mandate.
The last evaluation, done in 2003, recommended some approaches for the next study. It suggested developing more comprehensive data, including a system to track student migration between both kind of schools, accurate data on prior student achievement, and measurements of the quality and amount of instruction in both charter and regular schools. In the session just ended, lawmakers appropriated $62,000 for the next evaluation -- only a third of what's needed, according to state school officials.
Charters were set up to rescue children falling through the cracks in public schools. Nearly a decade after Missouri set up it charter school law, it's fair to ask whether charters are doing a better job than regular public schools in preparing at-risk students for jobs or college. If this were an essay question, state lawmakers would flunk the test: They haven't funded enough research to offer the public even an educated guess.