Opinion

Opinion: When all public schools thrive, our communities will, too

We learned a great deal about the educational needs of our children through this painful past year of the COVID pandemic.

Our kitchens, living rooms and garages were converted into makeshift virtual classrooms. Parents became teachers’ aids and tech managers. Kids learned to do show-and-tell and gym class and art and math and reading while in front of a screen.

We learned flexibility and adaptability are essential, not just to getting through the worst, but to ensuring our kids can be their best. We learned we all need a little grace in facing these challenges.

Now more than ever, families need to be able to choose public schools that best fit their child’s needs. And no child or family should be penalized for their decision or have lesser options simply because of their zip code.

Before adjourning for the year, Missouri lawmakers missed an important opportunity to right a wrong that has significant consequences on thousands of public school students.

Nearly half the public school students in St. Louis and Kansas City attends charter schools. Yet because of a ‘glitch’ in the funding structure set up 15 years ago, there is a significant funding gap for charter schools. District-managed school students are allotted nearly $1,000 a year more than their counterparts at charter schools, which are always free, public and open to anyone.

What could that $1,000 mean? It could ensure all kids have access to Wi-Fi. Or provide for more teachers and staff. Or improve playgrounds and other safe spaces for the children. As charter school enrollment has continued to grow, the disparity from this glitch has become more pronounced.

This was not the result of any targeted effort to shortchange charter school kids. The Missouri House of Representatives realized that and recently took an important step by voting to fix this funding gap. But the Senate adjourned its session without acting, meaning 13,541 children in Kansas City and 11,885 in St. Louis remain disadvantaged because they choose to learn and thrive in public schools that better meet their needs.

We are grateful to those who saw this glitch as an issue that is separate and distinct from any political or policy debate. We urge those who are not so sure to visit these schools, to better understand the impact of their decision on the students and their families.

All charter schools are public schools. These schools are not seeking to siphon money meant for others. Rather, they are only trying to ensure every public school student receives the funding they are entitled to. After all, public school funding is intended for the student, not the structure.

The funding glitch was created by two factors. First, charter school students receive funding from property taxes based on 15-year-old property values. In contrast, local districts are compensated using current year valuations. Second, charter school students also receive less in local revenue.

We cannot give up on fixing this glitch because we can’t give up on helping the students who attend public charter schools to be on even footing with their peers at other types of public schools. Over the past three decades, charter public schools have become an increasingly more vital part of the public education ecosystem in almost every state.

Today, more than three million students across the country access a quality public education through charter schools. These innovative public schools break down barriers that have kept families of color from the educational opportunities they deserve.  Five million more children await their opportunity for space in a charter classroom.

The pandemic shone a bright light on the need for more and better public education options for students. Charter schools can be nimble while remaining strictly accountable for maintaining high educational standards and serving the needs of diverse learners.

As we emerge from the devastating effects of COVID to health and our economy, we know communities of color have been disproportionately affected. Strengthening public school options that help millions of families thrive will be a key factor in helping communities across the U.S. to recover.

Come visit. Come hear the stories of families whose children’s educational needs are now being met. Meet the educators and students. And then, reconsider fixing the glitch. Because when all our public schools are equally strong, our communities thrive.

This commentary by Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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