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Mo. Governor Signs Charter-Expansion Law, but Says They Must Do Better

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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon this week signed a law allowing charter schools to expand in his state—but not before offering a blunt assessment of some of the schools' performance so far.

The governor, a Democrat, noted that his state seen a number of charter schools struggle and collapse in St. Louis and Kansas City, leaving state and local officials with questions about what should have been done better, and leaving students and their families scrambling to find other schools.

The legislation was approved by both chambers in Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature by wide margins. The new law will allow charters to grow by granting them the right to open in any "unaccredited" district, a state designation for systems that have continually struggled academically. They could also be founded in "provisionally accredited" districts, if they meet certain conditions. And in accredited districts, they can be created if sponsored by local school boards. Previously, state law had allowed charters only in St. Louis and Kansas City.

But the measure also imposes a number of new standards for academic performance and financial transparency for charter schools and their sponsors, requiring them to report extensive information to the state. It also requires sponsors to intervene at schools, if there is evidence of poor performance or financial woes. If sponsors aren't holding schools to high standards, the state can intervene directly, by requiring corrections at the school, suspending sponsorships, and other means, Nixon noted in a statement issued in advance of his bill-signing. In that statement, Nixon notably chose to emphasize the increased regulatory oversight the bill will bring, not the expansion it will allow.

"While we have charter schools in Missouri that are strong, it's quite clear there are charter schools where students languish in classrooms that don't meet academic standards, in schools that aren't well managed," the governor said, adding: "The failure of a charter school impacts the community and our state, and it is a serious setback for the students and parents the school is supposed to serve. It is evident that reform had to occur, and that stronger accountability standards were necessary."

The new state regulations will compel charters to provide a "better education to students," Nixon said, "and a better return on public education dollars to taxpayers."

The performance of charter schools in Missouri came under scrutiny earlier this year when the state's board of education voted to close six charter schools operated by Imagine Schools Inc., a for-profit charter management organization based in Arlington, Va. The schools had been dogged by questions about their finances and their low academic performance from both state and local officials.

"This legislation will provide more families across the state access to quality charter schools held accountable to high standards of academic performance and operational management," said Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, in a statement. The law, he predicted, will "expand access to charter schools for Missouri students in a manner recognizing that families in unaccredited and provisionally accredited districts are seeking alternative public education options."

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