The rationale for a new collaboration between public school districts in the St. Louis area and Missouri’s association of charter schools can be summed up in five words:
Charter schools are public schools.
EducationPlus, which includes 62 public school districts, and the Missouri Charter Public School Association announced this week a partnership to provide services to charters that would help them save money under a cooperative purchasing plan.
On a broader level, though, it establishes a closer relationship between two types of schools – both of which are financed with tax dollars – that in the past have been wary of each other, if not outright antagonistic.
A feeling that support for charters was a detriment to traditional districts has simmered for years. But Don Senti, who heads EducationPlus (formerly known as Cooperating School Districts), and Doug Thaman, who leads the charter school group, said the new arrangement will strengthen both groups.
“As the largest school district cooperative in Missouri, EducationPlus is in the business of enriching public schools with a variety of beneficial services,” they said in a joint statement.
“MCPSA works to maximize the collective strength of charter public schools to best serve students and families. Ultimately both organizations work to advocate for public education and help as many students as possible.”
In an interview, Thaman explained the new arrangement this way:
“It begins moving forward that good collaboration between two organizations that are both working to improve education for kids ...
“Over a period of several years there has been a greater acceptance of charter schools and we’ve demonstrated that charter schools are a quality educational option. We all can work together. We see this partnership as an opportunity for public schools, regardless of whether they’re traditional district schools or charter schools, that they all can work together. They can share some of the same benefits and ways that they work to help improve education for kids.”
In an email accompanying the announcement, Thaman said Monday that his association appreciates “EducationPlus’ stance to advocate for legislation that ‘does not oppose charter schools.’”
Opposing views on HB42
However, when it comes to state law, the two groups take opposite views of HB42, this year’s legislative attempt to change public education in Missouri, including an expansion of charters. EducationPlus is urging the governor to veto the measure; Thaman acknowledges that the bill has problems but wants Gov. Jay Nixon to sign it.
Current Missouri law allows charter schools only in St. Louis and Kansas City. The new bill would allow charters to open in provisionally accredited school districts, any district in St. Louis County and most districts in Jackson County in the Kansas City area.
EducationPlus wants Nixon to veto the bill, Senti said, predominantly because it could mean more students attending charter schools without additional tax money to fund them. He estimates that 68,000 students in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas who now attend private or parochial schools could potentially transfer to charter schools, which charge no tuition.
“If you do the math on the kids in the schools that would switch from private and parochial to charters, and even take a small percentage of the kids that might do that, the cost is very high," he said.
“Without increasing state funding for public schools, you would have to take money from the current public school budget to fund the additional students moving over to charters. So it’s a matter of size.”
But Thaman looks at the bill this way:
“We are excited at the proposition of being able to bring some public school choice to more families throughout the state of Missouri. We think that there’s a real appetite and interest for that. We hear from families all the time who say they’d like to have the same type of choices that families in Kansas City and St. Louis have.
“We really feel strongly about the charter school language. That it increases the accountability for charter schools but it also helps to maintain the autonomy of those schools. It helps charter schools to do a better job. That, in the end, really helps kids.”
Senti says EducationPlus is also concerned about an expansion of virtual schools, which he said doesn’t include enough accountability. Thaman compares that situation to the early days of charters in Missouri.
“When charter school language went into law over the past years,” he said, “there was time when it was necessary for the state board to establish rules and regulations. If that’s the case for virtual schools, then allow that to happen.”
The governor has given no indication what action he will take, except to say that he is studying the bill closely.
No opposition to collaboration
Senti said no superintendents in his group expressed opposition to the collaboration with the charter school group; he noted that Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, has worked with the charter operator KIPP to open one school and possibly work on others.
“Charter schools are public schools,” Senti said, “and kids are kids.”
Senti said the more traditional line has been drawn between public schools on one side and private and parochial schools on the other. But he did add that for areas that have had no experience with charters, wariness may be greater.
“I think the further you go away from the Arch, the more worries people have about charter schools," Senti said. "I don’t know why. Nobody’s going to try to start a charter school out state. We just kind of see this as sort of a non-issue.”
The collaboration with the charter school association does not include districts in the Kansas City area. But Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Kansas City, noted that her organization already has charter school members that can use its services at the same level as district members.
As far as advocating for legislation involving charter schools, Carruth said her organization has a different view from Education Plus.
“I don’t think that there is any school district in the Kansas City area that has difficulty with charter schools that perform,” she said. “I think one of the issues has been the way that legislation has been written, implying that every charter school is better than any public school.
“There has been an assumption there, and I think that pushes hard against good thinking.”
She said that expansion of charter schools into Jackson County, where there are no unaccredited schools, is one reason her group has asked Gov. Jay Nixon to veto HB42.
“We don’t know how that helps anyone,” Carruth said.
She also said that the bill does nothing to improve education for students who want to remain in Normandy or Riverview Gardens.
Also, Carruth, said, school districts in the Kansas City area that currently offer virtual education tailored to their students don’t want to see an expansion of outside companies offering those kinds of courses, because they don’t meet proper curriculum standards.