Charter schools

Apr 2, 2008

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.