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Charter schools need serious reforms, report finds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2011 - More than 10 years after the first charter school opened in St. Louis, too many charters have fallen short of their promise and need more financial help, stricter oversight and stronger incentives to improve student achievement, a report released this week by FOCUS St. Louis concludes.

Compiled by a task force of educators and others who worked for nine months, and including data on schools' performance, history and other data, the 20-page report says:

"Charter schools can provide a powerful model for improving educational options in low-performing school districts. However, according to the latest data (2010-2011), while many charter schools are performing better than the traditional St. Louis Public Schools, none of the 17 charter schools meet statewide academic standards. We can -- and we must -- do better."

To help achieve that improvement, the report had five recommendations:

  • Close charters where students do not reach prescribed academic standards, set either by the state or by the schools' own charter documents.
  • Overhaul the system of charter sponsorship.
  • Provide charters with access to revenue streams similar to those available to the school districts where they are located.
  • Allow charters to use vacant St. Louis public school buildings.
  • Improve the process for closing charters that fall short of their goals.

Mark Fogal, community policy and engagement director at FOCUS who served as staff liaison to the task force, said the report is designed to bring renewed public attention to a movement that was expected to provide a high-quality alternative to the unaccredited St. Louis Public Schools but has so far fallen short.
And when charters fail to make the grade, he added, there isn't much pressure on them to improve.

"I was surprised that there are charter schools out there that are really performing rather poorly," Fogal said in an interview. "There is a perception that somehow the charter schools are either going to police themselves or there will be some authority that will make sure they are performing at a high level.

"To find that in fact there are schools out there that are significantly poorer than St. Louis public schools opened my eyes."

Charters in Two Cities

Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but are not part of traditional districts. Instead, they are run independently, sponsored most often by a university and operated either on their own or by an outside operator. The state law passed in 1998 allows them to operate only in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Describing the school situation in St. Louis as "a state of emergency," the FOCUS report said that charters have not been the answer that many hoped they would be.

"In a world where quality education determines a person's economic potential," it said, "this consigns a generation of children to an uphill struggle. This is not to say that there are no quality public schools in the city of St. Louis. Some SLPS schools regularly test among the best in all of Missouri. Likewise, some charter schools have demonstrated remarkable success, targeting traditionally disadvantaged students and showing impressive gains in academic performance. Unfortunately, these success stories are not the norm."

Academic achievement -- or lack of it -- at the charters in St. Louis recently was highlighted when Mayor Francis Slay pointed out that the six schools operated in the city by Imagine Schools are doing poorly and should be closed. His view was echoed by Douglas Thaman, head of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, who said in an oped piece published in the Beacon while the performance of the Imagine schools is not indicative of charters as a whole, their lack of success must be addressed.

"Imagine Schools Inc. and their chronically underperforming schools must be held accountable," Thaman wrote. "We owe this to the other charter public schools in Missouri that are academically moving students in the right direction. We also owe this to the parents of Missouri's children who entrust their most precious possession to these schools. Most important, we owe this to the children in our charter public schools. They deserve nothing less than the very best educational opportunities."

In an interview with the Beacon, Thaman said that the problems highlighted by the FOCUS report get at the main issue involving charter schools: quality. He also said the report can serve a valuable purpose by calling the public's attention to issues surrounding charter schools.

"Here's some good information about charter schools in St. Louis," he said, "and that needs to be a stepping stone to asking how do we address these issues and continue to educate the public, so that they're not just looking at charter schools as a whole but looking at them as individual schools.

"That's when you really start to see that this school is doing very well, that school is performing well. That is when parents will be able to make the choices that are best for their kids."

Five Steps to Improvement

Discussing the report's recommendations, Fogal noted that one of the weaknesses in the charter school movement in Missouri is that while the operations of the schools are funded by public money, there is not much public oversight, and schools don't have access to tax dollars for facilities like traditional school districts do. It said that charters receive $9,515 a pupil each year, compared to $9,585 for the SLPS.

"We were looking at this at least in part through the lens of the taxpayer," he said. "One of the recommendations we made is that we need to figure out a mechanism to take empty school buildings that belong to the SLPS and make them available somehow for charter schools.

"Charter schools are getting pretty close to equivalent dollars in terms of operational expenses, compared to SLPS schools, but there is a big difference in that SLPS has a dedicated funding stream to address facilities so they can build or maintain schools. Charter schools have to pay for rental space out of their operational dollars, so it is not a real one-to-one match."

The report noted that at this time, even though charters are funded with tax dollars, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has the equivalent of just one half-time position to monitor the operation of charters. Direct authority over the schools is exercised by the sponsors, a situation that was the subject of discussion and discontent at a recent meeting of the state Board of Education.

"From a taxpayer's perspective," Fogal noted, "if we're spending a lot of money to educate students in St. Louis or Kansas City, there ought to be somebody who is looking over their shoulder to see what they are doing."

One possibility, which was included in legislation discussed but not passed in the General Assembly earlier this year, is establishment of a statewide charter commission that would serve as an alternative agency to sponsor a school. It also could step in if a school loses its sponsor and therefore loses its charter, but it still has money in its account.

The state department of education has maintained that in such situations, since a school no longer has legitimacy to operate, the department has no jurisdiction, so the school enters a sort of limbo.

"Somebody ought to be there," Fogal said. "There should be a sponsor of last resort. We shouldn't require universities that aren't necessarily interested in being in the business of accreditation to be in the business of accreditation. There should be some sort of state-level agency that has dedicated resources to serve in that role."

Not making the grade

As far as closing down schools that are not providing quality education, Fogal said clearer guidelines have to be established about what standards schools should meet and how long they have to reach that level.

"We debated where precisely you set the line," he said, "but I think there are clearly some schools out there that are underperforming, and we need to make sure a system is in place. We don't want to pick on any one school operator, but we need a policy in place so the system can deal with the problem.

"We shouldn't be reliant on the mayor to draw attention to such schools. A system should be in place so a school is not operating as long as it has been with such poor results."

Now that FOCUS has released its report, Fogal said the typical procedure is for the agency to wait for its recommendations to sink in, then form an implementation committee to help make its goals become a reality. He said he hopes that many features of the legislation that failed to pass this year can become law during next year's session in Jefferson City.

In any case, the report said, the 10,000 or so St. Louis students now attending charter schools don't have much more time to lose.

In the words of the report:

"Charter schools are viable public school options and they have an important role to play in improving the educational landscape for the children in St. Louis. But charter schools are not yet playing the transformative role envisioned for them. Our children deserve better. Our region deserves better. Success and growth require that all children have equal access to excellent educational opportunities. We are not yet there."

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