JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House on Wednesday debated a bill that would allow charter schools to expand to more districts in the state.
The proposal passed on an 83-74 vote after vigorous debate over whether charters would provide students with more opportunities, or if they would drain the resources of local school districts without having a marked positive impact.
The bill still has a final vote in the House before it moves to the Senate.
The proposal would allow charter schools, which can currently only operate in urban districts, to expand to other heavily-populated areas such as Columbia and Springfield. It would only allow new charters to open if the state school formula is fully funded.
Opponents decried the expansion, saying the bill doesn't offer enough accountability for charter schools. Some raised concerns about low performance of existing charters.
Under the current law, charter schools are allowed to open once they find a sponsor — usually a university — and the state grants approval. Oversight largely rests with the sponsor and a privately-appointed board since the state doesn't have the power to force closure.
In the debate Wednesday, House Speaker Todd Richardson proposed an amendment that he said would add accountability to the charter process. His addition would allow the state to provisionally renew a charter's application for poor performance. If performance doesn't improve, the state can refuse to accept the application.
Some said Richardson's proposal didn't go far enough.
"It's going to take years from the time that those contracts are renewed for us to shut down a school that we already know is underperforming," House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty said.
The bill would also allow charters to open if at least one school in the district met less than 60 percent of state standards. Students from that school would then have priority for charter enrollment.
Critics argued that could have a negative impact on districts that perform well as a whole but have one, low-performing building.
One example is Columbia, which has consistently high overall performance scores but contains one school that met just 35 percent of state standards in 2016. The school, Frederick Douglass High School, is an alternative school that provides extra training and classroom opportunities for students at risk of dropping out.
In recent years, some school choice advocates have used charter schools as a solution for failing, mostly urban, districts. In states like Michigan, largely unregulated charter school expansion took a toll on Detroit public schools by spreading local and state tax dollars thin and left schools fighting for students.
But Richardson said there's no danger of that in Missouri.
"Is a charter school the answer to a failing district? No," he said. "A charter school can be the answer for that child or that parent who has been trapped in a really, really terrible school district."