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State says it can't afford to implement new charter school law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 11, 2012 - By passing a law to expand charter schools, the Missouri legislature said it wanted to provide more options for high-quality public education.

But the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is now telling lawmakers that before provisions of the law can be put into place, they need to come up with the money to do it.

As things stand, even though nearly 20,000 students in St. Louis and Kansas City attend charter schools, only one person at DESE keeps an eye on charter operations, and that is only part of his job.

“We’re just putting out fires,” said Curt Fuchs, coordinator of the charter schools program office, told members of the state board of education at a recent meeting in St. Louis.

But the state’s failure to act on what needs to be done to expand charter schools, and its explanation for it, don’t satisfy Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. He said the department needs to find the money to implement the law on schedule.

“There’s a duty, whether you receive funding or not, to exercise what is in a state law to the best of your ability,” Thaman told the Beacon. “I think that the idea that the department could use additional resources and staff to work with the identification and evaluation of charter sponsors is accurate. However, I don’t think that should be a reason that moving forward on holding sponsors accountable and developing instruments that are needed should be delayed.

“I’m concerned that this is being viewed as an opportunity to delay expansion of charter schools.”

What the law says

The new law, signed by Gov. Jay Nixon in June, expands charter schools beyond their old borders of St. Louis and Kansas City, depending on support from a local school board. It also authorizes more groups to be sponsors, including the newly created Missouri Charter School Commission, and establishes policies and procedures that govern charter schools, with guidance from DESE.

Establishing those policies and procedures, and providing startup money for the statewide commission, fell to DESE. But at the state board meeting last month, education commissioner Chris Nicastro said that without state funding, the department simply can't comply.

For example, the standards needed for the application process for new charter sponsors were due on Nov. 1, but Fuchs told members of the state board that the department hasn’t even begun to develop them.

As a result, the Rev. Stan Archie of Kansas City, incoming president of the state board, hinted that a moratorium on new charters might make sense until the money is available to make sure that they are being run properly.

“To say, let’s keep drowning and nobody is giving us a paddle, that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

The possibility that DESE may not fulfill the duties that the law requires clearly displeased Charlie Shields of St. Joseph, a long-time member of the legislature and the newest member of the state board.

In a email, he explained that the dilemma is a common one with no real good answer.

"In the past," he said, "when legislation was passed, departments were expected to include the budget request to implement in their next year’s budget. If the legislature failed to fund the request, then the expectation the departments would implement the program didn't exist. I am not sure what the expectation is under today’s climate."

But, Shields added, the way DESE may have to handle the charter school law isn't necessarily the best way to proceed.

"State departments also get 'in trouble' when they move money around to fund unbudgeted items," he said. "In general, it puts them in a difficult position."

The performance of charter schools in general hasn't exactly impressed members of the state board. The current president, Peter Herschend of Branson, said that in his mind, their record in Missouri so far hasn’t been dazzling.

“Many people still consider charters the fair-haired boy that are the answer to failing public education,” he said. “They have not done the job. They are simply another alternative form of public education.”

And Mike Jones of St. Louis questioned what the new statewide charter school commission would be doing anyway, since charters are public schools and public education is the responsibility of DESE.

“It’s not going to work the way it’s currently put together,” Jones said. “It’s almost like setting up a separate Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for charter schools, which is nuts.

“I think we should have a legitimate conversation with the legislature about where that oversight authority is properly housed.”

Role of the commission

Thaman says such comments show a misunderstanding of how the commission is supposed to work, and the notion that charters have somehow failed also is mistaken.

“The commission is not meant to be part of the Department of Education,” he said. “The department will hold the commission responsible like any other sponsor. I think the misinterpretation of the legislation around this commission is just creating delay that isn’t necessary.

“I’m concerned that what happened in St. Louis with the Imagine schools, under one management company, is being viewed as a black eye to all charter schools and is being used negatively, when actually what was meant to happen with the charter school model did happen. Those schools were closed.”

In response to Herschend’s comments, Thaman said:

“Charter schools were never meant to be a white knight or a silver bullet. They were meant to be a way to provide choice to families, and their enrollment definitely demonstrates that parents want choice.

“If we are going to hold all charter schools accountable as a group, then why is that not also happening with district schools? Charter schools actually close when they don’t operate effectively. We don’t see that happening across other sectors of public education.”

As far as providing startup money for the charter school commission – a sum Thaman estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000 – he said his association has a tentative commitment of $50,000 from a private source that could make up part of the cost. But, he said, that money could be lost soon without some kind of understanding that state funds would also be forthcoming.

Thaman also noted that if the state puts up the money to establish the commission, it would be repaid out of the funds paid to sponsors of charter schools.

Reallocation goes only so far

Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner in the state’s office of quality schools, noted that since the department of education works directly with charter school sponsors, it needs additional support to do its job and implement the law. She noted that the fiscal note on the legislation passed earlier this year called for $300,000 to put the requirements of the law in place.

Without that money, she said, the department can’t afford to do everything it is supposed to. She said that Fuchs, who technically works part time overseeing charter schools, in reality spends all of his time doing so.

“We do the best we can to allocate to make adjustments,” she said, “But there does come a time when you have to say there are no other cuts you can make. Any time you make up for a gap in one area, there will be other areas that feel the loss. We’re at a position now that our staff is so thin, we have to be careful about those choices.

“It’s not that we are not wanting to implement this legislation. It’s that we’re trying to figure out the best way to do that.”

Vandeven said DESE would like to have the equivalent of five full-time positions in its budget to support charter schools as the law requires.

“What is being proposed is standards for charter schools, outlining expectations,” she said, “but we also were asked to provide guidance to sponsors on developing procedures, to evaluate sponsors on how they implement the standards every three years and to notify them of any kind of noncompliance issues.

“I think the goal of the legislators who passed this law is the same goal the department has and the state board of education has – to provide a quality education for all kids. The question is: How can we get that done?”

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