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Missouri Charter Schools at Heart of Legislative Push, and Controversy

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In Missouri, charter schools are currently confined to the two major cities that bookend the state, Kansas City and St. Louis. But that could soon change.

Legislation moving through Missouri's statehouse would allow for the expansion of charters in academically struggling—and academically sound—districts around the state, including suburban and rural areas.

The bill would allow local school boards around the state to sponsor charter schools. Sponsors would be required to develop policies for renewing or revoking charters, as well as standards for judging their performance. A similar measure to allow charter school growth was proposed last year, but it did not make it into law.

The author of this year's legislation, Republican state Sen. Bill Stouffer, is a former school board president and a native of Napton, a rural community in the central part of the state. In a column to his constituents written earlier this year, Stouffer said one of his goals was to allow charter schools to expand to rural areas, and to create more opportunities for students stuck in academically poor-performing ones, wherever they're located.

While "charter school performance is mixed," Stouffer wrote, "they also deal with some of Missouri's students who struggle the most. I am open to any ideas that would give our children a better opportunity."

Under a recent draft of the legislation, charter schools could be created in any "unaccredited" district, a state designation for those that have continually struggled academically. (The St. Louis and Kansas City districts have that designation.) They could also be founded in any "provisionally accredited" districts, if they meet certain conditions. And in accredited districts, they could be created if sponsored by the local school board.

"It increases the accountability on charter schools in the state, and it increases families' access to them," said Earl Simms, the director of advocacy and communications for the Missouri Public Charter School Association, which backs the bill.

⚫ Meanwhile, a dispute over students left in the lurch by charter school closures has erupted in St. Louis. The head of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has sent a letter to the state's commissioner of education, asking why students attending a group of charter schools slated to close aren't being given the option of transferring to other, accredited school districts.

At issue is the state Board of Education's decision Tuesday to close six academically and financially troubled charter schools in the city run Imagine Schools Inc. Education officials are working to find the students slots in St. Louis Public Schools, and other charter schools in the city, according to the Associated Press. (See my colleague Jason Tomassini's item from last week on the Imagine Schools closures.)

Adolphus Pruitt, the president of the NAACP's St. Louis chapter, told me that charter school slots in the city are limited, leaving families with few options. He said his organization is considering filing a lawsuit over the matter. The organization argues that the Imagine charter students should be able to take advantage of a state law that requires unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation expenses to send students living within their boundaries to accredited schools in the same or an adjoining county.

The NAACP officials wrote a follow-up letter to Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro today, arguing that the transfer of students to St. Louis schools could undermine previous desegregation efforts in the city.

"I have a fiduciary responsibility to provide a voice for the voiceless, and in this case, it's the parents of those kids," Pruitt told Education Week. "Their options should not be limited to just the St. Louis public schools."

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