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Lawmakers send bill to increase funding for charter schools to governor

Missouri charter schools will see millions in increased funding under a bill headed to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk with provisions protecting money allocated to local school districts.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, has been a three-year effort by charter school proponents to obtain more funds for their students. The bill also overhauls Missouri’s virtual education program, including allowing parents to have the final say over whether their kids can enroll.

“What we are doing is allowing everything to function as it is currently, and then the calculation will be made as to how much then is left to properly fund our public charter schools — and then we pick that up,” Richey said.

The bill passed out of the House by a vote of 116 to 29 three weeks after it passed out of the Senate. A Republican senator on Tuesday alleged House Majority Leader Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, was waiting for a separate education bill in the Senate to be passed first.

The charter provisions would affect schools only in St. Louis and Kansas City, the two areas where charter schools are currently operating. Public school advocates had fiercely opposed the bill because it originally used money from district budgets to augment charter schools.

A compromise unveiled in the Senate in April, would maintain funding for Kansas City and St. Louis public schools while increasing funding for charter schools through a change in the foundation formula, the basic state aid program for school districts.

The fix is estimated to cost between $62 million and $74 million in fiscal year 2023, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill — a point of concern for some senators who noted if charter schools were to expand in the future beyond St. Louis and Kansas City, the state would be on the hook for the costs.

Richey said the compromise passed Thursday would only apply to where charter schools are currently operating.

“Should a future general assembly decide to expand charters,” Richey said, “then they’d have to have this conversation all over again.”

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, praised Richey for the work done to find a viable compromise. When the bill passed out of the House in March it received just 85 votes, three more than the minimum needed to pass.

“While no piece of legislation is perfect, we can’t stop there,” Nurrenbern said. “We really have to make sure we’re doing what’s best for all students in our state and I think you’ve been able to do that with this piece of legislation.”

Doug Thaman, the Missouri Charter Public School Association’s executive director echoed those sentiments.

“…It is refreshing to see the Missouri Legislature come together to equitably fund all public schools,” Thaman said in a statement. “Make no mistake, this is not just a ‘win’ for charter public schools, but for all students across Missouri.”

The bill also includes new rules for charter schools, mandating that charter school management companies be nonprofits, that board members be Missouri residents and that test scores be posted on the school’s website.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said some lawmakers’ input hadn’t been sought and their concerns were ignored during negotiations. The provisions regarding board members would have looked different if her feedback had been considered, Proudie said.

“Such slight is not only a disrespect to me,” Proudie, “it’s a disrespect to the 37,000 people that I represent.”

The bill grew in the Senate to include virtual schooling.

One of the provisions would ensure parents have the final say over whether to enroll their students in virtual classes — rather than allowing a school district to give that approval. It’s a change lawmakers have sought since Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program, or MOCAP, was expanded in 2018.

Other new sections would create an attendance center where virtual students’ accountability metrics would be reported and clarify the amount virtual providers would be paid for full-time students.

“This is not the bill that I wrote when I started,” said Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters. “We’ve come a really long way from there. But ultimately I think it’s going to provide more educational choice and opportunity for Missouri school students.”

According to the fiscal analysis, the provisions’ costs could​​ range from $6.75 million for 1,000 students to $63.75 million for 10,000 students depending on how many participate.

Students in private or home school “could avail themselves of this program without ever having to actually attend a public school,” under the bill.

Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, said that a year ago she would have been the person who “raised my eyebrow and said hard no,” but that the bill passed Thursday would help students who can’t attend school in person.

“This remedy is good for everyone,” Brown said, “and it gives children and parents and educators an opportunity to come to the table and decide what’s best for these kiddos and what’s best for their family.”

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

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