Proposed 2021 bill would shutter ‘underperforming schools’ in Missouri


Missouri’s underperforming K-12 schools could be forced to transfer students to other schools, allow the district to authorize a charter school to replace it, or be shuttered if it does not show improvements.

Senate Bill 133, sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, would require the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to publish an annual ranking of Missouri K-12 schools performing within the bottom 5 percent of state schools under standards set by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

A school that lands in the bottom 5 percent during three years of any five-year span will be designated as a “persistently failing school” under SB 133.

The bill outlines three options for “persistently failing schools.” They can close and transfer students to a higher-performing school in the district, create a new in-district charter school via a partnership with a nonprofit school operator, or reimburse any district or charter school that allows students to transfer for the amount equal to the per-pupil expenditure for the district.

SB 133 essentially would allow students from “persistently failing schools” to participate in open enrollment within the school district.

O’Laughlin, who served as the Senate Education Committee chair during the 2020 session, told the Missouri Times that accountably needs to be emphasized in ensuring districts meet ESSA standards.

“The current accountability system often results in corrective actions that in reality vary little from standard operating procedure,” O’Laughlin said when she filed the bill last week for the 2021 session, which begins Jan. 6.

“If a school is failing it seems a new approach is necessary, and this legislation allows for that,” she said.

According to DESE, Missouri has 518 school districts and 38 charter schools ranging in enrollment from 23 to 25,670 students, with the state enrolling more than 900,000 students in preschool through grade 12.

The Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP), which is incorporated into the ESSA, already gauges each the state’s public K-12 schools through five metrics: academic achievement, subgroup academic achievement, attendance, college-and-career readiness (or high school readiness for K-8 schools), and graduation rate.

ESSA is “designed to ensure that all students have a significant opportunity to have a fair and equitable high-quality education and to close educational achievement gaps,” DESE states on its website.

Under the proposed bill, any school distinct with more than 20 percent of students attending a “persistently failing school” would be required to establish a charter school-authorizing office, review and approve any charter petitions for the district and submit them to the board of education for a vote.

Since her 2018 election, O’Laughlin has advocated for expanding charter schools into rural areas. In 2019, she sponsored SB 603 to allow charter schools to be operated in a county or in a city with a population greater than 30,000 rather than being restricted to the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas.

The bill passed through one committee but did not advance further in the House or gain traction in the Senate.

School districts and advocacy groups argued SB 603 would decrease funding for struggling schools in communities where charter schools are created. Under state laws, charter school sponsors are paid by the DESE a percentage of the state and local funding, up to $125,000 per student.

Schools can be “sponsored” in Missouri by school boards of accredited districts, qualifying universities, and the Missouri Charter Public School Commission. Charter schools establish their own “charter,” outlining its mission, goals and how it will measure performance.

“Charter schools are accountable to achieve the same state standards as school districts, but may choose to use different measures and timelines for reaching their goals,” the Missouri Charter Public School Commission said.

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