Charter schools
11:00 pm
Wed April 2, 2008

Charter schools

Following weeks of
English and math drills, tens of thousands of public school students
are sweating through another season of Missouri Assessment Program
testing. The scores are supposed to help the public figure out, among
other things, whether charter schools are as good an investment as
traditional public schools.

The spirited and at times mean-spirited
debate growing out of this question is as constant and as predictable
as Meramec River flooding following heavy spring rains. The tide of
charges and counter charges has risen higher than usual lately as
parties argue about whether city and state officials are demonstrating
foresight and vision or simply taking a fire, aim, ready approach as
they push to open more and more charter schools in St. Louis.

 Mayor
Frances Slay wants to add about a dozen charters to those already up
and running in the city, and the Missouri Board of Education recently
decided to sponsor a new city charter school targeted at dropouts. The
state now has nearly 25 charter schools, including a half a dozen in
St. Louis. Together, these schools serve about 7,000 students each in
the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. That’s roughly 20
percent of the students in each of these districts.

Given
the number of students attending these schools, it would seem logical
for Missouri to want to find out whether the charter school experiment
has been successful. In fact, Missouri’s charter school law mandates
that state school officials contract with independent and credible
researchers every two years to study the performance of charter school
students in comparison with students in regular schools and to
determine the impact of charter schools on the school district. The
Legislature has paid for only one such study, done at the start of the
charter school movement in Missouri, when the data were too limited to make
long-term projections about charter schools.

In
the absence of such data, people and organizations on both sides of the
debate have looked at the numbers and done their own evaluations of
charter schools such as Lift for Life Academy. The 263 youngsters who
attend this charter school on the South Side literally go to the bank
everyday. An old branch of the Manufacturers Bank is home to this
school, where students attend class in the boardroom and use teller
stations for study nooks. What’s really striking about the school,
however, is that a pro-charter group has singled it out as a high
ranking school in spite of the fact that only half its faculty holds
regular teaching certificates and only 26 percent of its 8th graders can do math well enough to ace the Missouri Assessment Program test.

According
to the Missouri Charter Public School Association, last year’s MAP
index performance ranking gave a needed lift to Lift for Life. That
school and St. Louis Charter School had two of the top four performing 8th
grade math classes in the city school system. The association also says
that other charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City were among the
10 top performing public schools in communications art and math among
students in the 5th, 6th and 7th grades.

However
well-meaning the association’s evaluation, it points up a serious flaw
in the ongoing public debate about whether students attending charters
are holding their own against youngsters in traditional city schools.
The association concedes as much. Formed over a year ago and focused on
giving students what it sees as high quality educational options, the
association also says there has been lots of progress among charter
schools, particularly those that are bigger, older and more established.

  “It’s
a work in progress,” says Michael Malone, director of member services
for the association. “Most charter schools aren’t where they can be,
but they’re heading in the right direction.”

How soon they will get where they should be is anybody’s guess.  But the question could be answered sooner rather than later if  the Legislature funded biennial studies to help Missourians find
some answers.