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House passes charter school legislation in close vote before Spring Break

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Speaker Todd Richardson scored a major victory Thursday with the narrow 83-76 passage of Rep. Rebecca Roeber’s bill to expand the charter school bill system.

Roeber’s bill will allow charter schools to establish themselves in any district which has at least one school building which scores below a 60 percent on an annual performance report (APR) for two of a three-year-period or any district lacking a career technical center. Pupils within the district will have priority over nonresident students to attend the charter school, but nonresidents can attend so long as they do not displace a resident student.

Rober said after the vote that charter schools’ autonomy helped them be more flexible and address the needs of students who struggle in public school settings.

“As a former public school classroom teacher for 18 years, I saw some kids that were not being served and they didn’t have any choice,” Roeber said. “I think choice and competition always helps everything.”

The bill also establishes a method to revoke or limit a school’s charter, namely poor academic performance. If a charter school performs worse than each school in the surrounding district or has a score below 50 percent on an APR, their five-year charter can only be renewed as a three-year charter. If that performance continues, the charter can be revoked entirely.

During the perfection of the bill Wednesday evening, Richardson himself presented the amendment on the floor to establish those limiting functions and spoke with numerous concerned Democrats who feared charter schools would take away resources from established and successful public schools.

Although the debate was passionate from both sides of the aisle, it never descended into animus. Rep. Karla May, D-St. Louis, asked Richardson if this bill would help failing or struggling districts. Richardson said it would not but instead focused on the individual students the bill would help.

“A charter school will not be the answer to everything we would like to see in the state of Missouri,” Richardson said. “It can be the answer for that child or that parent who has been trapped in a really terrible school district.”

Rep. Gail McCann Beatty speaks on the charter school bill March 15, 2017. (Courtesy of Tim Bommel/House Communications)
Rep. Gail McCann Beatty speaks on the charter school bill March 15, 2017. (Courtesy of Tim Bommel/House Communications)

The two came to an agreement that bad charter schools should not be allowed to continue educating – or failing to educate – children. Richardson’s amendment focused on ensuring poorly performing charter schools do not receive their charter.

“The reason [charter schools] were put [in the city] is because they thought they would perform better than the district,” May said. “If a charter school is no better than the district, we ought to get rid of them.”

Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty noted the charter schools in her district had failed students and under the provisions of the new bill could continue to fail students for up to eight years, and by that time, a generation of kids could be lost. She said parents in her district felt deceived.

“Parents have made their decision to send their kids to charter schools because they thought their kids would get a better education, but at the end of the day, they’re not getting a better education,” Beatty said.

Majority Floor Leader Mike Cierpiot, a known education reform buff, also spoke on the bill and acknowledged the issue before officially endorsing it.

“This is a difficult, difficult issue in this body,” Cierpiot said. “It’s a very fine needle to thread. If you’re looking for a reason not to vote for this bill, you can find it. But there’s been a great deal of compromise reached to help a lot of kids.”

After session released for Spring Break, Richardson said he and Cierpiot both spoke on the measure because it was such a pressing and important matter.

“Education reform has been something personally important to me for a very long time, but it’s also the kind of issue where we want to try to address as many of the concerns that have been raised by our caucus on this issue,” Richardson said. “The floor leader and I had the same goal which was to get to a bill that we thought we could be proud of and that our caucus could be proud of.”