Almost 20,000 students in St. Louis and Kansas City attended a charter school last school year. That’s nearly twice as many compared to the 2003-04 school year. And the breadth of charter school options could grow as the Missouri Charter Public School Commission begins to take shape.
Created under a 2012 law that expanded the type of institutions that could sponsor a charter school, the commission itself can sponsor a new charter school -- and it can take over any charter school if the state Board of Education removes the authority of its sponsor.
The law that created the commission also expands where charter schools can operate. They have been confined to the city of St. Louis and Kansas City. Charters can now open in any unaccredited district in Missouri. The Riverview Gardens School District in north St. Louis County is the only district classified by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as unaccredited, but no charter school is currently operating within its boundaries. The newly formed, state run Normandy Schools Collaborative -- previously the unaccredited Normandy School District -- is classified by DESE as being accredited as a state oversight district.
The law also laid the ground work for charters to open in a district currently classified as provisionally accredited and which has scored in the provisionally accredited range or lower for three consecutive years, starting with the 2012-13 school year. Although 10 other districts are currently classified as provisionally accredited, only Hayti R-II would meet this criterion if it fails to score above the provisionally accredited range on its state report card for this school year. The rural district in Missouri's bootheel scored 52.5 percent for the 2012-13 school year and 53.2 percent for this past school year, well below the accredited range,which begins at 70 percent.
A charter school can be opened in an accredited school district, but only a local school board could serve as its sponsor.
The nine-member commission has sat dormant without appointed members or startup funds from the state to cover its initial costs. But with $300,000 earmarked for the commission in the state budget, Gov. Jay Nixon has made five appointments to the commission over the past two weeks. Each appointee must face confirmation from the state Senate, which will not convene again in Jefferson City until January.
Among the appointees is Alicia Herald, CEO and founder of the St. Louis-based myEDmatch, a startup that provides teacher placement services and professional development for educators. Between 2007-2013, Herald held management positions with Teach For America, and she previously taught fourth grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. If confirmed, her term would run until September 2016
As charter school leadership gathers in St. Louis this week for the Missouri Charter Public School Association conference, St. Louis Public Radio’s Tim Lloyd recently spoke with Herald about the commission and what she sees as the role of charter schools into the larger educational landscape. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What would you look for when opening a new charter school?
Herald: Two different things. One is bringing in successful charter management organizations with a track record in another state or another city. The other is opening up a completely independent charter school. If I were looking at that, I’d want to know a few things. First, about the school leaders opening it -- do they have a background in charter schools, what’s their support system? How are we going to make sure they have the right checks and balances? Innovation for innovation’s sake isn’t going to get us anywhere. We have to make sure there’s a strong plan behind it.
Earlier this year a report from IFF -- a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides real estate consulting to nonprofits and loans money to schools for buildings -- found large gaps in north and south St. Louis when it comes to students having access to a nearby school that’s meeting state accreditation standards. Would that be an opportunity for charters out of the box?
Herald: Great schools don’t open overnight. It takes a planning process; it takes time. So, are there seats available in other schools? Can we figure out better transportation, better awareness for parents about those other open seats are in high quality schools now? I don’t want people to think that we’re going to open up a ton of brand new schools that are going to be able to solve this problem. Every school is more than just a building. We need great leaders and teachers in those buildings, too. I also think we have to figure out the relationship with the public school district. Are there more opportunities for collaboration? I don’t want to say the commission will just focus on charter schools and how we operate in our own bubble because we are part of this larger education system.
Let’s say a charter school isn’t performing all that well. The state board rejects the sponsor’s authority and it comes under the control of this commission. What would you do to help turn around a low-performing charter school?
Herald: There are different ways of reconstituting and turning around schools. We can look at successful models. But, ultimately, it is our job as a commission to make sure if a school is low performing and we’re not able to remediate it, we need to get in a different operator and leadership to make sure we’re delivering on a promise for kids.
Let’s talk about that. When you look at charter schools in Missouri it’s hardly been success across the board. Some have been successful, some have not. Does there need to be more accountability for performance in the state of Missouri?
Herald: Yes, absolutely, I don’t want to say it's criminal…but some of the performance of some of our schools needs to get a serious look. If I’m not willing to put my own kid there and you’re not willing to put your kid there, we shouldn’t have that school. Just because you have school choice does not mean it is a great school. We need to do a better job of educating parents about what to look for in a school.
Given that the commission is new in Missouri, can you point to another state and say, ‘that’s how we’d like to function down the road’?
Herald: Illinois is a good example. Not only are they tasked with the oversight and sponsorship of schools, but if (an application to run a charter school) were to be rejected, they are the rebuttal system. Once you’ve been denied, you go through their process, so there are different checks and balances. The same thing goes for shutting down schools.