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Missouri State Board Of Education Pressures MU To Step Up Oversight Of Struggling Charter Schools

Second graders at Confluence Academy-South City draw graphs. The Confluence Academies, which are sponsored by MU, are the largest charter network in the state.
St. Louis Public Radio file photo
Second graders at Confluence Academy-South City draw graphs. The Confluence Academies, which are sponsored by MU, are the largest charter network in the state.

State officials say Mizzou isn't doing enough to ensure students at six charter schools, including two in Kansas City, are getting quality education.

The University of Missouri College of Education has been told to step up its oversight of charter schools – or stop sponsoring them.

On Tuesday, Assistant Education Commissioner Chris Neale told the State Board of Education that while MU’s Office of Charter School Operations does a good job of vetting applications to open new schools, clear policies on site visits and school closures are needed.

“We look for a system, and we look for how those decisions actually end up being made,” Neale said. “We’d like to see better written documentation.”

MU has been sponsoring charters since 2007 and currently has six schools in its portfolio – four in Kansas City and two in St. Louis, including Confluence Academies, the state’s largest charter network. In Missouri, it’s up to charter sponsors to close schools, not the state board, but there were board members who thought MU should’ve closed Confluence instead of renewing its charter back in 2017.

At the time, Confluence was new to MU’s portfolio, and the St. Louis Public Schools were outperforming the charter. Confluence has since closed some of those gaps.

“For us, it’s about improving education in every type of school in Missouri,” MU College of Education Dean Kathryn Chval said at Tuesday’s state board meeting. “We’re committed to the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. I know some people don’t think that Mizzou in Columbia should work in our largest cities in the state, but we believe strongly that’s a role we should play.”

State Board of Education President Charlie Shields pushed back, saying that other colleges and universities have stopped sponsoring charter schools, including two of MU’s sister campuses, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

“There’s no shame in not being a charter school sponsor,” Shields told Chval and Gerry Kettenbach, MU’s Director of Charter School Operations. “If you’re going to stay in this sponsor world, you need to do it very well. You are the flagship of the University of Missouri System. ... The challenge you have is you need to do it better, and you’re going to be trying to do it in a time of very scarce resources I know the university is facing right now.”

And board member Peter Herschend said he didn’t hear in MU’s response a commitment to produce better-educated students.

“The university ought to be in a position of saying, ‘We’re diving in and gonna go hell bent for leather on helping those schools start to produce really good – or better – academic results for the kids.’ Why in the world does a sponsor even bother if that isn’t their objective?” Herschend asked.

Reached by email on Wednesday, Chval said that College of Education faculty and staff are passionate about serving charter school students and children in schools throughout the state.

“As a charter school sponsor, it is our responsibility to ensure that students have access to high-quality education. We take that very seriously,” Chval wrote, adding that for the past two years, MU students have been developing mentoring relationships with younger students in charter schools as well.

According to state education officials, MU is not meeting two of six standards for charter sponsorship. Documents provided by MU, however, show that the problems may not be as dire as some state board members indicated.

For example, MU fell short of the state’s expectations for “ongoing oversight and evaluation” of the charter schools in its portfolio. But the Office of Charter School Operations still met 11 of the state’s 12 requirements, and Neale said it wouldn’t take more than a few weeks for MU to take corrective action.

“In March of next spring then, if they have solved the problems, so be it. Good for them. We all win when we are better,” Neale said, adding that if MU doesn’t step it up, Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven will hold a public hearing and recommend sanctions for the sponsor.

That hasn’t happened before, as the Missouri State Board of Education only recently began evaluating charter sponsors. MU’s evaluation was only the second ever. (The first, for Washington University in St. Louis, was also on Tuesday, and state education officials gave their sponsorship of charter schools full marks.)

Expect the push and pull to continue as the state board tries to step up its oversight of charter schools in a state where lawmakers have given most of that authority to sponsors.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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