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Missouri Capitol

The Missouri Capitol at dusk on May 16, 2014. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri House narrowly approved Thursday a plan to allow a controversial expansion of charter schools.

After more than five hours of debate Wednesday and more than an hour of debate Thursday, the measure advanced to the Senate on an 83-76 vote.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate independently from elected school boards. They currently operate only in St. Louis and Kansas City; the plan would allow charter schools in places such as Columbia and Springfield.

The sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, touted the legislation as a way to provide students and families with more choices. The changes, she said, will bring competition to schools, triggering improvement and innovation in education.

That’s exactly what parents said earlier in the week when they lobbied in the Capitol for the expansion.

Carmen Ward has a son with autism. She didn’t feel that regular St. Louis public schools met his needs. Isolated from other students, he began to regress quickly.

After enrolling him in multiple schools that eventually shuttered their doors or lost accreditation, Ward was introduced to charter schools. Her son is now an eighth-grader at Kipp Inspire Academy in St. Louis.

“They’re mapping special needs services around what he needs,” said Ward, 38.

Ward, speaking to a panel of senators, implored them to give parents the choice.

“St. Louis Public Schools didn’t just get this way overnight. This has been going on for a long time,” she said. “And now that the pot is boiling, now we want to say, ‘Charter schools are not the best option.’ I can’t say it’s the best option for every kid. What I can say is, my son was failing rapidly. What I can say is the system he was set up to go in in St. Louis Public Schools was going to make him a statistic.”

Ward’s story, and others like hers, highlight the argument charter school advocates have been making for years — that parents and students deserve options outside of typical public schools.

But Democrats argued that schools are not businesses and that charter schools drain funding from students at standard public schools.

“We’re talking about children. Instead of putting in competition, we need to put our resources into schools that serve all children,” said Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury.

“This bill does not help kids,” said Rep. Doug Beck, D-Affton. “This is not what is best for kids.”

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, was among those calling on his colleagues to support the changes.

“Our public education system is a disgrace. We have failing schools throughout this country,” Dogan said. “We overlook that at our own peril.”

Some public education advocates remain doubtful. Charter schools’ performance has been a mixed bag at best, said Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

In St. Louis, some charter schools are so popular they struggle to keep up with demand. Others have struggled for over a decade but remain open.

In a hearing for a similar bill in the Senate earlier this week, others argued that the state had poured millions into charter schools that had closed.

“We believe those were not wasted dollars, but dollars that educated Missouri students. Just as we don’t believe the $3 billion dollars were wasted during the 10 years St. Louis public schools went unaccredited,” said Doug Thaman, Missouri Charter Public School Association’s executive director.

“But there is a difference,” he added. “Poor-performing charter schools close. Persistently poor-performing school districts [have] not.”

In a sign that Republican leaders knew the vote would be close, House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, inserted a provision saying charter schools could open only if the state’s school formula was fully funded. Under the current budget proposal pending in the House, the formula is fully funded.

The speaker also backed an amendment setting out a procedure for revoking a charter based on performance.

In the end, the measure received one more vote than was needed for approval.

The fight now moves to the Senate, where the chairman of the Senate education committee is not viewed as a major proponent of charter schools.

Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, has expressed concern that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has little authority to intervene in struggling charters, the way they did for St. Louis public schools.

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, who is sponsoring a similar measure in the Senate, acknowledged that a tense debate awaits.

But Eigel said he was confident the sides could reach a compromise to improve education in the state.

“We’re all trying to get to the same place,” he said.

The legislation is House Bill 634.

Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.