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Missouri Charter Schools Warn Of Funding Cliff As Their Enrollment Grows

Children draw at City Garden Montessori school. The school plans to increase enrollment from 276 students to 2,500 over 10 years.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Children draw at City Garden Montessori School. The school plans to increase enrollment from about 300 students to 2,500 in St. Louis over the next decade.

The Biome School, a small, independent public charter school in St. Louis, has to rely on donations for a quarter of its funding to educate 178 students. 

“We're certainly not crying foul from the standpoint that we knew the business model was broken when we launched the charter school,” said Bill Kent, school president and CEO.

The school’s fundraising efforts go toward paying teachers and counselors, filling the $1,100 gap between what it receives in per-student funding from tax revenue and what St. Louis Public Schools gets. Fundraising, Kent contends, should be supplemental, not for core functions of a school educating a high-needs student population.

“Without our fundraising, we would not have the robust student support services that we have for such a small school,” he said.

Kent and other charter school operators are on the offensive this winter to change the way they’re funded, asking that they receive the same per-student amount as traditional public school districts. The 80 cents-on-the-dollar shortfall is inadvertent and not meant to impede charter schools, they say, but nonetheless affects the students they serve.

Charter schools are independent public schools that in Missouri are essentially limited to Kansas City and St. Louis. Traditional public schools receive about 45% of their funding from local sources, mostly property taxes but also other taxes. That money is collected when residents pay their property taxes at the end of the year. The other major chunk of school funding is state aid, with a small portion from the federal government.

In 2007, Missouri lawmakers decided to simplify charter school funding by paying their share of local revenue from state coffers. That way, charter operators wouldn’t have to wait for the traditional public school district to pay them, and the district could just keep what it collected.

The 2007 law pegs charters’ share of local sources to property tax values as they were in 2004. As charter school enrollment continues to grow, property values rise and education expenses increase, the state hasn’t been able to keep up, and the gulf between costs and revenue is widening.

“There's going to be that pinch point, where it's going to impact and they're going to have to make hard decisions around programming instruction and whether they can continue to sustain themselves,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, an organization representing charter schools. 

Because charter schools enroll about 47% of public school kids in Kansas City, the gap is widening more quickly there. KCPS’ Board of Education agreed earlier this month to pay charter schools in that city $2 million of their local revenue to fill the gap. Thaman called it an “important Band-Aid.” 

In St. Louis, about a third of public school students attend charters. A tipping point is further off, but looming, advocates contend.

Overall relations between charter schools and SLPS have improved in recent years, but they’re still in competition for students and the funding that follows them. SLPS has additional expenses that charters do not, its superintendent argues, such as paying for students in the desegregation program and universal pre-school. 

“I don't think any of us want to hurt kids. But we do have some obligations that charters do not have. No one can dispute that at all,” said Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

The calls for equal funding have gotten the attention of the new chairman of the Missouri House’s education committee, Republican Rep. Chuck Basye from the Columbia area. He said it’s something the Legislature should “seriously look at.”

KCUR’s Elle Moxley contributed reporting.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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