James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

Earlier this week, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released a new study of Charter Management Organizations.  The study included more than 3.6 million student records from 26 states, including Missouri. A total of 5,715 charter schools were included in the study.

On average, charter schools improve test scores in English Language Arts and Mathematics at a higher rate than comparable traditional public schools. There is variation, though. Notably, the authors of the report found charter schools that belong to a network, (known as a charter management organization, or CMO), tend to perform higher than independent charter schools.  Missouri’s charter schools didn’t fit this trend, as non-CMO schools performed relatively well. Nevertheless, the findings of this report have some important implications for Missouri.

Currently, there are relatively few large, successful charter management organizations operating in our state. There are a few reasons why this is so: 

Limited Locations

For many years, charter schools could only open in Saint Louis and Kansas City.  For a network of schools to thrive, it needs to be able to enroll a large number of students. The limited markets of Saint Louis and Kansas City make it difficult for this to happen.

Limited Enrollments

Charter schools can now operate in unaccredited school districts, but they still face problems with enrollment. Missouri’s charter school law does not allow students to enroll in charter schools across district boundaries, and Missouri has relatively small school districts. A charter must attract a large percentage of students in a small school district in order to be viable. This has prevented charters from opening in the perennially struggling school districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens, as well as other places. 

Making it easier for charters to open statewide and allowing them to recruit students from across district boundaries might entice more charter operators to open schools in other districts or on the borders of Saint Louis and Kansas City. Current law makes it difficult for charters to operate outside of the two cities.

Pension Barriers

An added difficulty is Missouri’s teacher pension system. Currently, there are three separate systems which do not have reciprocity between them, meaning that years of service do not carry from one system to another. Charter networks may wish to move teachers or administrators between schools, but if this means moving between pension systems, those individuals would lose money.

Funding Parity

Charters in Missouri do not receive local tax support for facilities and debt. An analysis by researchers at the University of Arkansas shows that charters in Missouri receive approximately 26 percent less funding that their district counterparts. This is a difference of more than $4,600 per pupil. Many states are trying to attract high quality CMOs and can offer them more support than Missouri can.

If Missouri wants to improve educational outcomes for students, the legislature should enact polices that make the Show-Me State more attractive to CMOs. For starters, the legislature could address the problems listed here by removing geographic limitations, opening enrollment policies, reforming pension policy, and improving funding parity. 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.