JEFFERSON CITY • A Missouri House committee heard success stories of charter schools for more than three hours Wednesday as advocates launched an all-out pitch to allow the nontraditional public schools to be established statewide.
Charter school administrators, teachers and parents from St. Louis and Kansas City told of teen mothers who have college ambition, of drug-infested neighborhoods that are being cleaned up, of children who love learning.
"It's not just St. Louis. It's not just Kansas City," said Stephanie Krauss, president of Shearwater Education Foundation, which runs a dropout recovery school in St. Louis. "There are smart kids who want to be back in school" in other areas of the state that could benefit from innovative charter schools.
The bill is a top priority of the Legislature's Republican leadership but has faltered in the past, mainly because of opposition from rural Republican lawmakers worried that charter schools would drain money from traditional public schools.
Opponents also pointed out Wednesday that despite the success stories, charter schools have fallen short of expectations, with their students often doing worse academically than students in the struggling urban districts.
Charter schools are a "Band-Aid solution that doesn't address the actual problems with our school system," said Mike Lodewegen, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of School Administrators.
The critics also said Missouri should first pass a bill to make it easier to track and close substandard charter schools. Gov. Jay Nixon added his voice to that call last week, endorsing a charter school accountability bill in his "State of the State."
Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school districts. They are currently confined to St. Louis and Kansas City.
The bill being considered by the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee would allow charter schools to be established in any public school district that loses accreditation or becomes provisionally accredited. In addition to St. Louis and Kansas City, that list currently includes 12 districts, such as the Riverview Gardens, Jennings and Normandy districts in St. Louis County.
The bill also would permit charter schools in accredited districts, but only when established by the local school board.
That option could help small, rural districts turn around troubled schools faster and avoid having to consolidate with a neighboring district, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
"This is not an adversarial approach," Thaman said. "It's an opportunity to work together."
Each charter school is required to have a sponsoring organization — usually a nearby college or university fills the role now. That list would be expanded under the bill to include certain nonprofit organizations and a new state commission.
The sponsors would gain leverage, executing legally binding contracts spelling out student achievement and financial health standards.
Deborah Carr, who oversees four charter schools that the University of Missouri sponsors, said when one of Mizzou's charter schools in Kansas City foundered, the university worked out a transition plan so parents had a year to find other options.
Carr noted that closing a charter school requires a sponsor to act against its self-interest, because sponsors are paid 1.5 percent of the charter school's funding, up to $125,000.
The bill would seek to lessen sponsors' worries about legal costs when they close a charter school, allowing appeals to be handled through the State Board of Education instead of the courts.
Much of Wednesday's testimony was coordinated by StudentsFirst, a national education advocacy group founded by former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The organization recently added Missouri to about a dozen states where it is working to revamp teacher tenure and expand charter schools. Many of the witnesses wore gold scarves in recognition of School Choice Week.
Perry J. Owens, a minister from Jennings, said he sent his four children to parochial or private schools but many parents can't afford that option. "So you need another avenue," he said.
The committee is not expected to vote on the bill for a few weeks.
The bill is HB1228.