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Correction: This story has been corrected to remove a reference to the Missouri Public Charter School Commission keeping schools updated about funding legislation. The Missouri Public Charter School Association provided the updates to schools.
More than 20 years after Missouri allowed charter schools to launch in the state, a shift is happening in who holds them accountable.
In the Kansas City area, universities have been some of the most prominent sponsors of the public charter schools. But in just the past few years, several ended the relationships or saw charter schools removed by the state.
Stepping in to replace them are a public school district that wants to create a more collaborative relationship with charter schools despite past tensions; a private university hoping to become more involved with the state’s schools; and a commission created by the state.
Ten months ago, the University of Central Missouri, one of the oldest charter school sponsors in the state, announced it would no longer oversee its seven Kansas City-based schools, effective June 30, 2022.
In December, the Missouri State Board of Education removed two Kansas City charter schools from University of Missouri-Columbia sponsorship after MU failed to close them for poor performance.
Those recent changes follow the University of Missouri-Kansas City announcing in 2018 that it would withdraw from charter school sponsorship by mid-2019. The university sponsored eight charter schools at the time and had been involved with charter sponsorship for 19 years.
The shift is not necessarily a bad sign, said Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.
“Higher education needs to be commended for stepping up when the charter school law started,” she said. Universities’ interest “in getting involved in this work was really central to seeing charter schools start and so the entire sector is really grateful for them.”
But now some universities feel they have made their contributions and can collaborate with schools in other ways, Wahby said.
Meanwhile, other sponsors are available.
The commission, Kansas City Public Schools and Saint Louis University are each stepping in to sponsor multiple schools that were formerly sponsored by UCM.
They’re looking forward to finding ways to support the schools, and they’re aiming to make the transition so smooth that students and families may not even notice it in the short term.
The new Kansas City charter school sponsors
By early March, all but one of the seven schools that were sponsored by UCM had agreements with new sponsors.
The commission was created to sponsor charter schools through a 2012 state law, Wahby said, but didn’t become active until the governor started appointing members in late 2014 and early 2015.
Wahby said the commission now sponsors 49% of the charter schools in Missouri and 65% of the charter schools in Kansas City. The commission became the sponsor of almost half of those schools in the past year or so, she said.
Charnissa Holliday-Scott, director of educational systems at KCPS, said the decision represents a move toward even greater collaboration between charter and traditional public schools, despite competition for students and funding.
Gary Ritter, dean of the university’s school of education, said sponsoring more charter schools reflects the school’s Jesuit, Catholic mission to “insert ourselves into situations in support of the marginalized, of the oppressed, those seeking justice.”
He said he’s particularly interested in working with schools that are “serving students with the greatest need” and those that have innovative programs.
Scuola Vita Nuova in northeast Kansas City was the only school that hadn’t yet chosen a sponsor, Wahby and Holliday-Scott said. The school did not respond to an interview request.
The UCM Office of Charter Schools is working with new sponsors to make the transition as smooth as possible, said Victoria Hughes, the office’s director.
In announcing its decision in May, UCM said it wanted to focus on its core mission of post-secondary education.
Hughes said she wasn’t involved in discussions about ending charter school sponsorship, but she believes charter schools are a valuable part of the education landscape in Kansas City that should continue.
“When there are different choices, it does bring everybody up a level, it really makes you ramp up your game,” she said. “And actually, that’s everyone’s goal who works within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries, and there’s a tremendous collaboration.”
How charter school sponsorship works
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are independent from their local school district, and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t decide whether or not they’re accredited. They also don’t hold local school board elections.
Instead, charter schools are governed by nonprofit boards and held accountable by a charter school sponsor.
In Missouri, any school district in the state can sponsor a charter school, though that rarely happens.
In Kansas City and St. Louis, sponsors can also include:
- Four-year public and private colleges or universities.
- Community colleges that overlap with the school district.
- Certain private vocational and technical schools in Missouri.
- The Missouri Charter Public School Commission.
Sponsors are responsible for making sure charter schools are following the law, and they provide oversight in academic achievement, finance, governance and operations.
Sponsors can help troubleshoot issues. But ultimately, the sponsor is also responsible for holding schools accountable and shutting them down if improvement plans don’t work.
To compensate them for their work, sponsors receive up to 1.5% of a charter school’s state and local funding, not to exceed $125,000.
How new sponsors might influence charter schools
Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the organization is “agnostic” on which sponsors are best. It has compiled a list of questions for charter schools to ask as they choose new sponsors.
Every sponsor’s primary purpose is to provide accountability and oversight, but they can have additional benefits depending on the types of resources they can offer, he said.
Académie Lafayette, a French immersion charter school, particularly wanted a university sponsor because it hires native French speakers and can use support with visas, Wahby and Ritter said.
Ritter, the SLU dean, said the university has sponsored a St. Louis charter school for decades and has been open to sponsoring more charter schools.
He described it as one more way for SLU to partner with the state’s schools, especially those in areas of high need. SLU can connect schools to departments like the School of Social Work or the Interdisciplinary Center for Autism, he said.
Other benefits could include having quality placements for student teachers, recruiting students who graduate from Académie Lafayette’s high school to attend SLU, and learning more about how to better assist all schools, Ritter said.
“I’m confident that what we learn in working with our charter partners we will also be able to use … to support our district partners,” he said.
Wahby, of the charter school commission, said some schools that have seen a sponsor withdraw appreciate the focus and stability the commission provides.
Samantha Novak, director of communications at Guadalupe Centers Schools, said the organization appreciates the commission’s full-time focus on charter schools and expertise in issues that affect them.
“We don’t really see it (the sponsorship change) affecting our families or our students in any way, other than, you know, we’re just continuing to have school because we have a sponsor,” Novak said.
Holliday-Scott, at KCPS, said one of charters’ primary questions was whether the district would make drastic changes or replace board members. She said that won’t happen because the district respects charter schools’ autonomy.
Any changes the district would influence might come in the long term as KCPS learns more about the schools and discovers ways to deepen collaboration or help them improve, Holliday-Scott said, or if the district needs to intervene in a problem.
She thinks the schools that gravitated toward KCPS as a sponsor were already used to working with the district, felt comfortable with staff people and wanted to collaborate more. The district already sponsors Allen Village Charter.
Holliday-Scott said that as the district works to maintain and increase enrollment, it recognizes charter schools are drawing from the same pool of students.
School board sponsorship of charter schools also hasn’t been common in Missouri, which Holliday-Scott thinks is related to the history of the schools in Missouri.
“Depending on who you talk to, it could almost be seen as … an intentional punishment to Kansas City or St. Louis to create charter schools,” she said.
But perceptions are shifting as the district recognizes the benefits for students when public schools and charter schools collaborate, such as by coordinating transportation or allowing charter school students to attend Manual Career and Technical Center, she said.
“It has been a growth for Kansas City Public Schools to sponsor schools, and it’s also been a growth for the charter schools and for our system,” she said. “We are having conversations now that I think we would not have been able to have among each other 10 years ago.”
“We want to be able to see, how can we — those people who are closest to the families and closest to educating kids — how do we design our system and make it work best?”