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Charter schools will get millions in state funds, not from traditional public schools’ budgets

Gov. Mike Parson has signed into law a bill to infuse more than $60 million in state funding into charter schools.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, aims to close a discrepancy in funding allocated to charter schools versus traditional public schools that was the result of outdated property values. The law will go into effect Aug. 28.

The three-year effort reached the finish line this past legislative session after lawmakers struck a compromise to increase funding to charter schools by pulling from state funds, instead of school districts’ budgets.

“It’s an exciting day when we’re now at a place where no matter where a child is being educated within the public education context, whether it’s charter or traditional, local school, they will now be able to receive the same funding,” Richey said. “And that is a good thing.”

Through a change in the foundation formula, the method by which Missouri calculates aid for schools, an estimated $62 to nearly $75 million in state funds is anticipated to be sent to charter schools in fiscal year 2023, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.

The bill only applies to areas where charter schools are currently permitted under state law — which encompasses Kansas City and St. Louis. Under certain circumstances, charters are also permitted to expand into areas where districts are not fully accredited.

The new funding method relies on updated property values, which had not been revised for charter schools since 2005. As a result, charter schools in Kansas City received about $1,700 less per student on average, while in St. Louis the amount was $2,500.

Public school advocates had fiercely opposed any attempts to pull funds from the budgets of traditional public schools to boost charter school budgets. They argued traditional public schools are already underfunded and subject to more requirements than charter schools.

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

Ben Conover, an organizer with Solidarity with SLPS, a volunteer-run advocacy group of parents, teachers and allies, said it was a win for advocates, who have also worked to achieve a moratorium on new charter schools in St. Louis as the board of education leads a citywide plan to address the issue.

The compromise, “protects public school funding, and will hopefully in the long term bring more scrutiny and transparency to the financial dealings of charter schools,” Conover said.

New rules for charter schools included in the bill also require that charter school management companies be nonprofits, that board members be Missouri residents and that test scores be posted on the school’s website.

The bill eked out of the House in March with just three more votes than the minimum needed. After the Senate unveiled a reworked bill pulling from state funds, it sailed out of the House a vote of 116 to 29 in the session’s final days despite concerns over the bill’s costs.

With charter schools now enrolling slightly more K-12 students than traditional public schools in Kansas City, Richey said “that adjusts the discussion significantly.”

“That’s a significant portion of the population that have chosen to go a different route,” Richey said. “And it’s important for the state to be able to show that we’re going to fund that.”

Expanding charter schools beyond the state’s largest metros has long been a controversial push in the legislature that has failed to pass.

“If Missouri reaches a day where charter schools are allowed to establish in other parts of the state, it will be important at that point to take a look at the funding mechanism,” said Doug Thaman, the Missouri Charter Public School Association’s executive director.

For now, Thaman said he was pleased to see more financial resources to achieve equity in funding for students and said a broader discussion on how to revamp the state’s foundation formula is needed.

“It’s an antiquated formula,” Thaman said. “And there’s going to be a time where that needs to be adjusted or revised.”

Conover noted that Missouri ranked 49th in the nation for the amount of state aid going to schools, and said that next legislative session he hoped to see legislation that would lead to viability studies for new and expanding charters.

“Our parents and advocates will continue to stand up and remind folks that public schools are a public good,” Conover said, “and we don’t want public money going to privately run organizations that don’t have any transparency and accountability.”

The bill also includes provisions overhauling Missouri’s virtual education program, known as the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program, or MOCAP.

A provision in the bill stipulates that for students seeking to enroll in a full-time virtual program, the state education department will develop a policy that ensures school districts “require the good faith collaboration” of the student, their parents, the virtual program and host district and resident district. The virtual program would make the final determination over a student’s enrollment, and a means to review appeals of any decisions must also be established.

The bill aims to ensure parents have more say over whether to enroll their students in virtual classes. It’s a change lawmakers have sought since MOCAP was expanded in 2018 and after some families encountered school districts that were denying access.

“We heard from a lot of parents around the state who had made decisions and they were running into hurdles by local administrators that violated the spirit, if not the actual letter of the law, on not supporting the direction the parents wanted to go for their child,” said Richey, who also chairs the Joint Committee on Education.

The bill will also create an attendance center where virtual students’ accountability metrics would be reported and allows for school districts to be reimbursed for allowing virtual students to use the school’s physical location to complete classes.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, private or homeschool students could potentially participate in the MOCAP program without ever having to attend a public school. Costs to the state will depend on student participation, with an estimate of $6.4 million if 1,000 students participate.

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

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