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Legislators Hear Pros and Cons of Charter Schools

February 27, 1998
By: Margaret Murphy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - At the end of a long afternoon hearing and after weeks of listening to rancorous debate on education reform and desegregation legislation, Columbia School Board member Lynnanne Baumgartner sat down at the witness table last Tuesday to testify against a charter school bill introduced by the committee's chairman.

"I'd like to remind you of an old adage," she told two rows of bleary-eyed House Education Committee members on the dais in front of her. "Be careful about getting on a tiger -- it's sometimes hard to dismount."

She was sounding a warning about an issue that could be voted on as early as Tuesday by the committee or its counterpart in the Senate. The proposal would allow public charter schools in Missouri, one of 20 states that hasn't passed any charter school legislation. The first charter school was started in Minnesota in 1992.

"When I first heard about them, I wasn't real impressed," said Rep. Steve Stoll, D-Festus, the sponsor of the House bill and the chairman of the House Education Committee. "They sound like we're not supporting public schools, instead of recognizing maybe we can have public schools that can serve the needs of some kids who might not be being served by the current system."

Under the various proposals before the legislature, charter schools would be independent, non-sectarian public schools started by a group of parents, teachers or interested citizens and sponsored by an entity such as a college or the local school board.

The schools would not be allowed charge tuition and would be required to accept all students as long as there was space. They would be funded by the same amount of local, state and federal revenue that would be spent on the child if he were in his regular public school, because the funds would follow the child.

Effectively, a charter school would get the tax revenue that normally would be provided to the local public school for each student in the charter school.

Proponents say charter schools would be a way to give parents who aren't happy with their child's school another public school choice. Opponents say they would create a dual system of education, draining resources and the students from more motivated families.

Stoll said there are about 160,000 students who attend one of the 750 charter schools in the United States.

"Charter schools are basically free from most education laws and regulations, but in return, they are accountable for results," Stoll said. "If they don't meet or exceed state assessment standards, the sponsor by law must revoke their charter. It's basically an experiment in freeing schools of regulations in return for them promising they'll attain certain results."

But this provision, freeing the charter schools from many regulations, is one which bothers Columbia School Board member Baumgartner. Waiving rules for some publicly financed schools but not for others would be unfair, said Baumgartner, who testified on behalf of the Missouri School Boards Association.

"We're saying to a group of people with no particular track record of research, et cetera, and a group of people at a college, 'Bingo, okay,'" you can get the rules waived, Baumgartner said. "But you won't do that for my district? We have blue ribbon schools, we've won awards and you won't waive the rules and regulations very often for us."

Baumgartner warned that while Stoll's bill would only allow charter schools in the St. Louis or Kansas City school districts, it would be just a foot in the door.

"It's naive to believe those who propose this for Kansas City and St. Louis don't want it for the whole state," she said.

A bill in the Senate, proposed by Sen. Franc Flotron, R-St. Louis County, would do just that -- allow charter schools in all of Missouri's 525 school districts. In districts such as Columbia's, with a graduation rate higher than 65 percent, only the school board would be given the power to approve or deny the charter.

"In areas where people are happy, this bill means a whole lot less than where people are unhappy," Flotron said. "It only has an effect where people are displeased with their school."

For former high school teacher Ann Mendelstamm of St. Louis, the legislature can't pass a charter school bill soon enough.

Mendelstamm, 58, retired early last June after teaching for 27 years at Ladue High School in St. Louis County.

"I was so disappointed and frustrated at what I saw happening," she said in an interview. "It was a good school district, with good people -- no villains. But it was almost impossible to make any worthwhile changes. The bureaucratic tangle was so intense."

Mendelstamm said she wants to start a charter school in downtown St. Louis, with 300-400 high school students. She applauds the provisions in the bill that would free the school from many regulations.

"Say I teach history," she said. "(In public schools), it is a very long process to get a textbook change approved. Now I could get the history teachers together and call the next day to get the books. You can do things quicker. You only have three to five years (the length of the charter) to improve academic achievement. If it doesn't work, you ditch it immediately."

While she said that creating a dual system is a "real concern" to her, she said generally speaking, the charter schools across the country have served a greater percent of at-risk children than the normal schools do.

Mendelstamm said the public schools up to now have had a monopoly because they haven't had any competition. "Everyone's going to get a raise. Nothing's on the line," she said.

She said if the charter schools are a success, the other public schools will have to adopt changes.

"Everyone in Jefferson City is saying, 'What about this, what about that, what about religious zealots,'" Mendelstamm said. "We're graduating 30 percent of 9th-graders from high school. You can't get more dangerous than that. It's far more dangerous to do nothing."

Both the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee and the Senate Education Committee have held hearings on their respective bills. The narrower House provision -- charter schools only in Kansas City or St. Louis -- seemed to win over some education groups that oppose broader charter school bills.

Gary Sharpe of the Missouri Council of School Administrators testified before the House committee that his group opposes charter schools. He said they are a "simple, quick fix" and that instead, the focus should be on the problems beyond school behind why students fail in big cities.

But, he said, the St. Louis and Kansas City schools are so poorly managed, charter schools should be given a chance, although the bill needed a number of changes.

Rowena Conklin of the Cooperating School Districts of the Greater Kansas City Area said her group could accept charter schools as a sort of "pilot project" in Kansas City and St. Louis. However, she said, there need to be safeguards against so-called cherry-picking of students.

"There needs to be a microcosm of the macrocosm," Conklin said, warning against creating schools with students from only a thin slice of the area. "If they're not representative, of course they'll come out better on test scores."

Each of the witnesses who testified before the committee, along with the lawmakers, has sat through dozens of hours of hearings on both charter schools and a bill aimed at ending court-ordered desegregation payments to the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts.

The fate of the two bills could be tied together, as any charter school bill passed could be folded into the desegregation bill to win more votes. The Senate Education Committee passed, on its second try, a desegregation bill two weeks ago. The bill has not been scheduled to be voted on by all 35 senators on the Senate floor, nor has any action been taken in the House.

The charter schools bills are expected be voted on by both the House and Senate education committees this week.