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Despite cost concerns, charter school funding boost still expected to advance

A week after senators celebrated a compromise to increase funding for charter schools, the estimated cost of the proposal stalled its progress — at least temporarily.

Before the Senate can take a vote, the bill would need to be passed out of the Senate Committee on Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight, where the chairman has raised concerns.

Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield and chair of the committee, said the overall costs of the new proposal and how it would increase if additional charter schools open in the future had prompted concerns from some committee members.

“So if we had a proliferation of them,” Hough said of charter schools, “the state’s going to be on the hook.”

Hough said that if the bill restricted the spending to current charter schools, “it would make me more comfortable, because then I would know what the defined cost really is.”

According to a fiscal analysis of the Senate proposal, state education department officials estimate the changes to charter school funding would initially cost the state an additional $62 million.

It’s a similar point that Charlie Shields, president of the Missouri State Board of Education, raised during Tuesday’s board meeting when he cast doubt on whether the bill would ultimately pass this session.

“The charter school fix, as they call it, I’m not convinced the Senate version actually survives all the way through the process, but it’s also an interesting but very expensive fix,” Shields said. “But there needs to be some resolution.”

Days after the bill was expected to be taken up for a vote, proponents were optimistic one was on the horizon.

On Thursday, Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he expected the compromise announced last week would be sent to the House when lawmakers return Tuesday. From there, it could be passed and sent to the governor’s desk. 

For the past few years, charter school proponents have advocated for lawmakers to “fix the glitch” and increase funding for charter schools, which receive less than their traditional public school counterparts due to outdated property values.

Under the new proposal, rather than transferring funds from school districts to charter schools, the money would instead come from the state through an adjustment in the foundation formula, the method by which Missouri calculates aid for schools.

A hearing in Hough’s committee earlier this week on the bill was canceled. As of Thursday afternoon the bill was slated to be heard during next Tuesday’s committee hearing.

“It’s a new component of the discussion regarding the charter funding bill, so that’s to be expected,” Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs and sponsor of the original House bill, said of the discussion on the bill’s fiscal impact. “But I’m confident that they will be able to find a way to get that addressed.” 

Asked about the idea of the compromise being an expensive solution, Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester and the bill’s handler in the Senate, said “it definitely is, it’s probably not my first solution to the problem.”

“I think the underlying bill, as it came to the Senate or came out of Senate committee, is probably better than this compromise,” Koenig said, “but sometimes you don’t get everything you want in a compromise.”

The proposal unveiled last week also included increased accountability measures for charter schools, and added provisions regarding virtual education.

According to the fiscal analysis of the bill, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education anticipates that by not requiring students to be enrolled in a public school for a semester before participating in the state’s virtual education program, students in private school or home school, “could avail themselves of this program without ever having to actually attend a public school.”

The impact on the state’s foundation formula would depend on how many students participate, with estimated costs ranging from $6.4 million for 1,000 students to $63.75 million for 10,000 students.

The change in charter funding would currently affect only St. Louis and Kansas City, which are the only areas where charter schools operate.

Matt Davis, president of the St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education, said the district “vehemently” opposed redistributing the district’s funds to charter schools.

“There’s an entire list of things that if we lost this funding, we’re going to be in a difficult situation, ‘Well what do we cut,’” Davis told the State Board of Education Tuesday. “And nothing should be cut, it should all be increased.”

Under the original proposal, St. Louis Public Schools and Kansas City Public Schools would lose an estimated $18 million and $8.2 million in funding respectively.

But under the compromise, they do not, a point that Ben Conover, an organizer with Solidarity with SLPS, a volunteer-run advocacy group of parents, teachers and allies, said he was pleased to see.

“We are not super excited about more money going to charter schools in the compromise,” Conover said, “but we understand that the legislature was likely going to fund charter schools more one way or another.”

Davis expressed hope that “this issue is put to bed” with the compromise, but he stressed that the district still planned to ensure that accountability is exercised over taxpayer funds.

“Our concern is with that fix, we also want to make sure that all of the schools do take very seriously the obligation that as public schools we have to educate every kid,” Davis said. “We don’t want it to be in a situation where schools are receiving the same amount of funding but not providing the same amount of services.”

If passed out of the Senate, the bill would then need to be sent back to the House, where lawmakers could either agree with the changes or request a conference committee to come to a compromise.

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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