by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – With high-profile failures of public schools in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, more communities and families are considering the option of charter schools to fill the shortfalls.
Dr. Douglas Thaman, President of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, says in an interview on “Missouri Viewpoints” that charter schools should at least be an option for local school districts and taxpayers throughout the state.
“Parents should have a choice. You should have a choice how your public dollars are spent and so charter schools are meant to provide that choice to families.
“They’re also meant to provide innovative models to families so that a parent can make a decision about the best place for their child to go to school based on the model of the school, what the school offers, location of the school, but it’s tuition-free.”
So, what’s different about charter schools? They are public schools and must be open to all students in the district by law. They do have some freedoms that their traditional counterparts don’t, though. They operate independently from the school boards in their districts and are instead run by their own board of directors.
Thaman adds “What that allows is the opportunity for that governing board to focus the budget of that school, the educational programming of that school, toward the students who are sitting in those seats…as opposed to a district of several thousand students who are trying to make curriculum decisions, instructional decisions, budgeting decisions for thousands and thousands of children, you’re looking at the children you have in your building and saying ‘OK, what best will meet their needs.’”
That freedom and that independent control bring a different level of accountability, according to Thaman.
“If, after a period of time, that school is not performing, is not meeting its goals, then it’s closed.”
That’s in contrast to what Thaman sees as a problem with the traditional public school system: an inability to quickly fix problems and improve the process of education in districts that are struggling.
“Historically there are poor-performing schools, public schools, that, although they’re not really serving and meeting the needs of children, they operate year after year after year. There are improvement plans put into place, but they never really improve and they’re never really held accountable.”
That accountability in charter schools comes from both the school-specific governing board and the threat of quick closure, supporters say.
Charter schools must have a sponsor. Typically, that’s a college or university but can also be the local school board. The state’s Department of Education can also sponsor a charter school.
Not all charter schools succeed, and that’s not a bad thing according to Dr. Thaman.
“We only want the most successful models to open.” He says that means cutting losses when something is not working.
In St. Louis, six charter schools operated by Virginia-based Imagine Schools, Inc. were closed last spring after poor academic performance and controversies surrounding financial management. Over 3,300 students were affected.
Opponents of charter schools look at the swift closures as evidence against the charter school concept. Thaman sees it as the concept working.
“If it doesn’t work, there’s no point in saying for the next thirty years more and more children are going to go through this school.”
Still, charter schools are not an easy option for everyone at this point.
The formation of a charter school can only happen in districts that are unaccredited and in districts that are only provisionally accredited for at least three years. The state or a university could step in and sponsor a charter school in these areas.
Outside of those areas, only the local school board can decide to allow a charter school to be established as part of the district’s options.
The local board of education would be the charter school sponsor in that case.
According to the MCPSA, there are dozens of charter schools in the state now with a collective enrollment of over 20,000. At the end of the 2011 school year, over a quarter of all St. Louis public school students attended charter schools and almost a third of Kansas City public schools were in one.