Two philosophies about public education were at odds in the Missouri Legislature this week as the House debated, and narrowly passed, a proposal to expand charter schools in the state on Thursday with an 83-76 vote.
The bill would allow charter schools to move into heavily-populated districts, such as Springfield and Columbia, and allows them to open in a district when at least one building meets less than 60 percent of state standards. It can only go into effect if the state fully funds the school formula. The proposal now moves to the Senate.
Under current law, charters can only independently operate in low-performing districts after applying for sponsorship and getting approved by the state. They can also move into other areas if they are sponsored by the local school district.
Those in favor of the House proposal said it would fix a "broken" public education system, and that choice creates accountability by allowing parents to choose a different school if they believe the education is bad.
Expanding charters would also force educators to get better in order to keep students. But without charters, there is no other choice but to continue to attend a failing school, Republican Rep. Rick Brattin said.
"Without another option, what is their option?" he said.
Currently, the law states that charter school oversight rests largely with the sponsor and a privately-appointed board. The state can initially approve the application and renew it every five years, but it cannot force a school to close — that power rests with the sponsor. The House bill would allow the state to provisionally approve and then revoke a charter's application for renewal for low performance.
Opponents pointed to St. Louis and Kansas City, where charters have existed for nearly 20 years and performance scores have been mixed.
"I think this body did a disservice when it allowed rural Missouri and the rest of the state to opt out of charters and used urban areas like Kansas City and St. Louis City as test cases to a failing system," Democratic Rep. Karla May said. "We wasted approximately $683 million on charter schools, and they weren't even performing better than the schools that weren't even accredited."
Of 35 Missouri charter schools with available data for the 2016 school year, 20 met less than 75 percent of state accountability standards. Six met less than 50 percent of those standards.
A 2015 study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found little difference in annual learning gains in math and reading between students at traditional public schools and charter schools in St. Louis.
Charter school critics also point to places like Michigan, where largely unregulated charter school expansion spread local and state tax dollars thin and left schools fighting for students.
That free market mentality could be dangerous for schools, Democratic Rep. Sarah Unsicker said.
"We're not talking about businesses — we're talking about children's lives," she said. "So instead of putting resources into competition, we need to put our resources into schools that educate all children."