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In Kansas City, Missouri, charter schools serve nearly half of all public school students within Kansas City Public Schools district boundaries.
Some praise charter schools for adding more options for local families, while others worry they create inefficiencies and aren’t as accountable as traditional public schools.
But what exactly makes a charter school different from a district public school? How do they work? And how does their prevalence in Kansas City affect students and families?
The Kansas City Beacon put together this guide to help give context.
Is a charter school a public school?
Yes. Charter schools are government funded and free to attend.
So what’s the difference between a charter school and a “normal” public school?
Charter schools are considered “independent” public schools, meaning they aren’t governed by the local school district.
Charter schools are also free from some of the rules and regulations most traditional public schools have to follow. For example, while 100% of teachers in traditional public schools must be licensed, charter schools only need 80% of teachers to be licensed.
Charter schools still have to meet academic, health and safety standards, said Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. The association aims to increase access to charter schools and provide resources for them.
Instead of being accountable to the locally elected school board, charter schools are run by nonprofit boards and are held to a contract with a sponsor. The sponsor periodically reviews the school and determines whether it is meeting the terms of the agreement and can stay open.
Who sponsors charter schools?
There are several options for charter school sponsors in Missouri.
Public school districts can sponsor charter schools anywhere in the state.
In Kansas City or St. Louis, charter school sponsors can also include certain four-year public or private universities, community colleges that overlap with the school district, certain Missouri private vocational or technical schools, or the Missouri Charter Public School Commission. The commission is made up of nine members appointed by the governor.
According to a charter school sponsor directory from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the commission sponsors eight charter schools in Kansas City and the University of Missouri in Columbia sponsors four.
The University of Central Missouri-Warrensburg sponsors seven but will be ending its sponsorship in mid-2022.
Kansas City Public Schools sponsors only one charter school: Allen Village Charter.
How are charter schools funded?
Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive federal, state and local funding.
However, charter school proponents have been pushing for a law change to adjust the calculation of charter school funding.
Thaman argues the system for funding charter schools means they receive hundreds of dollars less per student than traditional public schools.
But some groups say fairness is more complex than funding per student.
David Luther, director of communications for the Missouri Association of School Administrators, said traditional school districts have financial responsibilities that charter schools don’t. For example, charter schools are not required to provide transportation, though some choose to.
Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, argues the funding formula has disadvantages for traditional schools as well because charter schools receive their share at the beginning of the fiscal year, before tax assessments are appealed. Only district schools risk losing money if tax revenue is less than expected.
What do charter school supporters say?
Supporters say having independence from larger school districts and from some regulations allows charter schools to be more creative.
Some charter schools offer language immersion programs, unusual schedules or single-gender buildings, characteristics that might not work districtwide but can be a good fit for certain children or families, said Robbyn Wahby, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission.
While some charter schools prioritize a specific geographic area, many accept students from all over the district, meaning families could more easily move within Kansas City without having to change schools, Wahby said.
Additionally, Wahby says charter schools are good for Kansas City because they give families who want to stay in the city public education choices outside of KCPS.
The district has been working for nearly a decade to get full accreditation from the state. It is currently provisionally accredited.
What are some criticisms of charter schools in Missouri?
One major criticism is that charter schools are not accountable enough to locals because their boards are not publicly elected and they do not follow all the same regulations.
“We certainly are not opposed to the existence of charter schools,” Randol said. “The issue for us is when public dollars are spent for education, we feel like there needs to be a level playing field and that both taxpayers and children are protected.”
The association has compiled a chart of differences in accountability measures between district and charter schools.
Thaman argued it would be better to remove discrepancies by freeing traditional schools from some regulations, like the licensed teacher requirement.
Another concern is that charter schools can create inefficiencies as they divert money from traditional public schools every time they enroll a student who would have otherwise attended a traditional school.
When district schools lose students, their financial burdens don’t always go down, meaning they can be stretched thin.
If five or 10 students leave a district school, “you don’t eliminate a bus route or classroom,” Randol said. “You just increase the cost.”
How do charter schools affect Kansas City Public Schools?
Kansas City Public Schools referred The Beacon to its system analysis from 2018.
The analysis, which covers district schools and charters within district boundaries, says the number of school options in the district has led to inefficiencies.
Compared to Springfield Public Schools, which serves a similar number of students, the Kansas City system spends more money per student, including higher costs for administration, transportation, facilities and instruction.
Kansas City also has a high number of public schools, including charter and district schools, which are disproportionately concentrated in the central and southwest regions.
The analysis calls for greater cooperation between KCPS and local charter schools to allow for better central planning.
“Kansas City Public Schools is constantly evaluating the education landscape, which of course includes charter schools,” KCPS said in an emailed statement. “We know we share our students with charter schools, and that’s why it’s so important that we invest in all Kansas City kids.”
Wahby, with the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, suggested charter schools also provide benefits for the district, such as making Kansas City a more appealing place to live.
“They certainly, as quality options, increase the property values of the communities in which they are located,” she said.
Wahby also argued competition with charter schools can be healthy.
“I think it allows for the district to think about how to be more competitive and how to be more creative,” she said.
Who goes to charter schools?
Slightly less than half of public school students in Kansas City were in charters in 2020, according to a fact sheet from the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association.
The fact sheet and KCPS’ 2018 system analysis agree the demographics of Kansas City charter schools are roughly similar to those of traditional district schools.
But KCPS does enroll a higher percentage of English language learners and students with disabilities — all children who require more resources to overcome accessibility issues.
Thaman and Wahby both said individual charter schools have extremely different records on serving those populations, with some exceeding the district average percent of students with disabilities while others are below it.
How can a student get into a charter school?
Enrollment happens through a lottery process that any student in the district can enter, Wahby said.
In general, charter schools can’t select which students they want or turn them away for academic or behavioral issues, she said. The only reason a charter school can refuse to admit a student is for lack of space.
However, there are some exceptions to that rule.
For example, some charter schools are designed as neighborhood schools, meaning they still use the lottery system but can prioritize students from a specific area. Single-gender schools are allowed. And charter schools can limit new enrollments to lower grades, meaning they don’t have to fill vacancies if older students leave.
Wahby said that typically happens in schools with a special program, like language immersion, where it would be difficult for students who didn’t enter at a younger age to succeed.
For families who are uncertain about what school is the best fit, she recommended Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families navigate the various private, traditional public and charter school options in Kansas City.
Why are there charter schools in Kansas City but few in surrounding areas?
With some exceptions, Missouri law allows for charter schools only in Kansas City or St. Louis.
Outside those areas, charter schools are allowed in some districts with accreditation issues or if they are sponsored by the local school district.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation to expand charter schools to other parts of the state, especially to Kansas City and St. Louis suburbs and cities with more than 30,000 residents. But it has so far been unsuccessful.
In Kansas, charter schools are allowed but must be sponsored by the local school district. There are currently only 10 charter schools in all of Kansas, including one in Olathe.