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Opinion: Observations on the Senate’s charter school debate

  

There is a tradition in the Missouri Senate that every senator will be heard. We are reminded of this as we look around the Senate chamber and see the words inscribed in marble, “Free and fair discussion is the firmest friend of truth.”

Discussion may be the friend of truth, but it sometimes contributes to a lack of sleep. That was the case this week, as the Senate debated the expansion of charter schools late into the night. Senate Bill 292 was brought up for perfection early Tuesday afternoon. The measure was finally laid on the table at about 1 a.m. Wednesday, without a final vote.

The charter school concept is probably new to most people living in rural Missouri. Currently, Missouri law only allows these independent public schools in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. Charter schools came about as traditional public schools in the metropolitan areas lost statewide accreditation and parents sought alternatives to failing schools.

Cunningham

Although public school districts can apply to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to form a charter school, typically these institutions are sponsored by a university or community college. They are considered public schools, however. They receive taxpayer funding and admission is open to any student, though often there are waiting lists and lotteries for admission.

Currently, about 25,000 students attend classes at 65 charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City. The legislation debated this week would permit the formation of charter schools in some cities with populations as small as 30,000 people.

School choice is a popular topic for a number of members of the Missouri Senate. Each year, we consider legislation to provide more education options for parents. This year is no exception. In addition to the charter schools bill, there is also a measure that would create education savings accounts and allow parents to set aside pre-tax money to pay for private school tuition.

Opponents of these proposals are every bit as determined as their advocates. School choice is a controversial issue, and neither side seems willing to budge much.

Senators who filibustered the charter schools bill argued against siphoning money away from existing public schools. They also pointed to past failures of charter schools as evidence of a flawed concept. Proponents of charter schools touted high academic achievement and parental satisfaction with these alternative institutions. Clearly, a case can be made either way.

I did not participate in the marathon debate earlier this week, though I listened as each side stated its case. I certainly understand how charter schools could address failing schools in big cities. I’m not sure that expanding them to rural areas is practical, however. Is there enough support in a small town to justify an entirely separate school? How would rural and small towns schools suffer if per-pupil funding is diverted to charter schools?

My position on this issue is simple: I support our schools. So far, I have not heard a convincing argument that charter schools would work statewide. Perhaps there is justification for some expansion beyond the current limitations, but it remains to be seen whether we can find the compromise to make that happen.

Judging by the debate I heard in the chamber this week, both sides are firmly entrenched. I’m not sure there’s much common ground to be found.