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State school board seeks more authority over charters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2011 - JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri state board of education advanced a new way to judge the state's public school districts to the next stage Tuesday, but several members expressed frustration that the new standards would not cover the 20,000 students attending charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.

While the new accreditation system -- the fifth incarnation of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5  -- moves along to a 30-day public comment period, board members want another proposed rule to give them more authority to close charter schools that are not performing.

Currently, while the board grants charters to sponsors that present proposals, once the schools are approved they can be closed only by the sponsors, not by the state board, according to current state law. The board cannot change the law, though some members suggested strongly that they challenge it.

What the board can do, according to the rule presented for discussion Tuesday morning (read the rule at the bottom of the story), is put into place a rule to require sponsors to hold their schools to stricter scrutiny in terms of both academics and finances. Tighter control over sponsors would give the board tighter control over schools, they believe.

Currently, about four dozen charter schools operate in Missouri; by law, they may be established only in St. Louis and Kansas City. The latest figures show that enrollment of 20,000 is split about evenly between the two cities, with slightly more in St. Louis. Since charters were authorized in Missouri, eight have been closed by their sponsors -- five in St. Louis and three in Kansas City.

Mark Van Zandt, general counsel for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told board members that efforts to expand their authority over charters have failed to win passage in the legislature, for a variety of reasons. The proposed rule would more clearly define how charters should perform, academically and financially, as well as spelling out what sponsors should do when charters fall short.

The goal, he said, is that any child who enters a charter school can be assured of having an excellent chance at success. He said the department did not want to be in a position of not knowing about poor performance until it's too late for the situation to be turned around.

"We don't want to use the autopsy method of school improvement," Van Zandt said, "where when a school goes down, that's when you intervene. We want to be able to intervene early."

The more transparent process that is detailed in the proposed rule, he added, would help parents and students see what is happening at any particular school and give a clearer picture of the relationship among the school, its charter and the management company that is directly in charge.

Noting that the DESE staff devoted to charters is just one person, Curt Fuchs, Van Zandt added:

"We have to leverage the work and partnerships with the charter sponsors."

Board is Ready to Fight

That relatively passive stance did not sit well with some board members who said that if they are in charge of making sure that public education in Missouri is effective, they should have more say over charters, which are paid for with tax money, as well as that of traditional public schools.

In particular, they noted that MSIP5, which has been the subject of much discussion in recent months, would not govern the operations of charters.

"I don't think the public is aware of that," said board member Mike Jones of St. Louis.

"This is like cowboy education, like the Old West. If they get it right, they get it right, and if they don't get it right, there's nothing anybody can do about it. There's something fundamentally wrong with that, by any standard anybody wants to use."

Concerning the standards that would be imposed by MSIP5, board president Peter Herschend of Branson added:

"If it's valuable for other students in the state, it's valuable for the students in charter schools. It may well be that if sponsors feel the heat strongly enough, perhaps we can get those kids academically protected a little better. Right now, we're not doing that."

Stan Archie of Kansas City, board vice president, said he would like to see the board take a stronger stance in the governance of charters and see how the issue plays out.

"I would rather fight it at that level than say to kids, 'We will not give you the kind of protection we give the rest of the kids,'" he said. "That's the message."

Jones agreed, saying it's a fight the board should be engaged in, even if it might lose.

"That's the first thing you learn in the schoolyard," he said. "You don't have to win all the fights, but there are some fights that you just have to have."

Charters Respond

Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, did not attend the discussion in Jefferson City but commented on the proposal in an email, saying that the group "is in support of strengthening the accountability of the charter schools and sponsors in an effort to always ensure that the charter schools are of the highest quality. There are many sponsors doing the job of holding their schools accountable and we believe that anything that can be done to strengthen the accountability requirements will provide sponsors with the necessary support they need to make such important decisions.

"We are pleased that the Missouri Department of Education is allowing us to be a part of this important discussion. Our preference would be that the strengthening of accountability begin by working with sponsors to develop a set of principles and standards as required by statute. We would also prefer that increased requirements around accountability happen through statute as opposed to rules and regulations; however, we understand that this hasn't come to fruition for a variety of reasons and the absence of successful legislation shouldn't prevent sponsors from receiving the support they need to make critical decisions."

On the issue of MSIP5 and accountability for charters, Thaman wrote:

"Charter public school leaders don't shy away from being held accountable to meet all state and federal requirements as well as specific academic, operational and financial performance goals. We believe this actually holds them to a higher expectation. Where MSIP5 is an accountability measure for traditional district public schools, there are charter autonomies through MSIP5 which would be lost and limitations placed which could prevent charter public schools employing innovative instructional techniques/programming and being able to successfully operate and perform.

"Again, this is not to say that charter public schools shouldn't be held accountable; however we believe and support their accountability through each school's independent performance goals. ... A charter public school is also held accountable by the parents of their students and as these schools are meant to provide educational options for parents, if a school cannot maintain their enrollment they will be unable to operate as the demand for their programming won't be there."

Msip5 Moves on to Public Comment

On the proposed MSIP5 plan itself, the board passed it with no additional discussion, on unanimous votes on four separate sections except for one dissenting vote on one section.

Two changes were made from the document submitted to the board on Monday, when members debated it for nearly three hours.

First, as part of the accreditation process, districts will have to show evidence that they are providing adequate instruction in physical education and fine arts. Those subjects had been left out of the earlier version, and while assessments will not be conducted in those areas as they are in other subjects such as English and math, their inclusion may now be considered.

Second, the board added a fourth classification of accreditation with distinction to the earlier categories of accredited, provisionally accredited and unaccredited.

Now, a 30-day comment period will begin when the public can have its say before the board votes on whether to make the rules final. If it passes, districts will have two years to make necessary changes before the new standards become effective in 2013.

The Missouri School Boards Association, which had been critical of the earlier version of MSIP5, praised the revised proposal, particularly the provision where school districts will receive credit for students who have participated in career and technical education programs and are then employed in those areas.

"We're also pleased to see the number of required assessments reduced at the high school level," spokesman Brent Ghan wrote in an email, "although we remain concerned about the time and resources school districts will have to devote to preparing for and administering the additional assessments that remain."

Ghan added that the association strongly agrees that charter schools in Missouri should be held to the same accountability standards as those established for traditional district schools.

Students, Teachers and Social Media

On another controversial topic discussed by the board Tuesday, the effect of Senate Bill 54, which spells out the proper and improper contacts between teachers and students, was discussed in terms of what the state should do and what should be left to local school districts.

Most of the attention paid to the law has centered on whether teachers and students can be in contact with each other on social media sites such as Facebook. But Van Zandt noted that it also requires annual background checks for educators that will have to be done in conjunctions with other state agencies such as the Highway Patrol, the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health and Senior Services.

"Most of these databases are not set up to take the large amount of data that you need when you are dealing with schools," he said. "If you don't do something ahead of time, you can literally overwhelm these systems."

For the Facebook portion of the law, he said, there are two key questions. First, local school boards are authorized to develop policies concerning teacher and staff communications with students, policies that may of them already have. Second, teachers may not communicate with current or former students on private or closed online sites that parents do not have access to.

Van Zandt said it's not clear whether lawmakers were aware of the depth of involvement by students in social media websites and the different between public and private access -- for email accounts, for example.

In any case, board members worried that the restrictions may end up harming student achievement, however unintentionally.

"I don't know that the law's job is to figure out what individual teachers should be doing with their time," said Archie. "Our kids are going to be on social media no matter what. I understand that we have had some teachers who have gone the wrong way and abused this. But we have just taken productive use for the web in the future and limited it."

Chris Nicastro, education commissioner for the state, said that in the end, the policies cannot be run from Jefferson City.

"We can't police teacher interaction with students at the state level," she said. "That is something the local districts will have to do."

DESE State Board August 2011 agenda: Charter School Rule

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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