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By Keith Williamson

Headshot of Keith Williamson

Keith Williamson

This opinion piece originally appeared in The St. Louis American

Governor Mike Parson’s signing of a bill that ensures students in charter schools receive the same public funding as students in district schools shows us what’s possible when groups stop letting differences divide them and come together to advocate for children.

Collaboration among groups who often disagree resulted in historic legislation that will infuse roughly $62 million of new state money into charter public school classrooms in St. Louis and Kansas City next year. This will help pay teacher salaries, buy new technology, and provide essential classroom supplies in schools that serve more than 25,000 children in our state’s two largest cities.

Just as important — existing funding for district schools in both cities will remain constant, even if their school enrollments decline. The legislation is a win for everyone and represents a positive step toward broadening our approach to ensuring that all children, particularly our most vulnerable, have access to a high-quality education.

For too long, the rhetoric in St. Louis has been charter versus district — as if the success of one must come at the expense of the other. Research shows that the growth of high-quality charter schools increases the performance of the system as a whole. We must overcome this zero-sum mindset. The passage of the funding equity legislation offers hope that we can.

Again, getting to this point involved cross-state collaboration, compromise, and leadership that focused above all else on what is right for all children. This collaboration was refreshing, and it was effective. School districts, education nonprofits, civic organizations, and lawmakers found common ground rather than let differences divide them. They worked as a team and with parents and forged a coalition to improve learning conditions for children.

From the time the first charter public schools in Missouri opened their doors in 1999, they have received funding based on a formula that accounts for local property taxes, attendance rates, and state and local allocations. Because that formula held the funding constant for charter schools even as local funding increased, it has resulted in St. Louis charter public schools receiving $2,500 per student less than the city’s district schools. This year, over 40% of public-school children in St. Louis attend charter public schools.

The Kansas City Public Schools played an important role in advocating to fix this glitch as a matter of fairness given that children in charter schools represent half of the public-school population in Kansas City. They joined a broad coalition supporting the legislation that included business and civic organizations in both metropolitan areas — The Opportunity Trust, School Smart KC, Quality Schools Coalition, the Missouri Charter Public School Association, and ultimately, the Missouri National Education Association.

Throughout the process, Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, was a consistent advocate for children and families in the city of St. Louis and he was a critical player in getting us to a final bill that was good for everyone. He was later joined by nearly every Kansas City and St. Louis legislator in both parties. We applaud his bold efforts and say thank you for fighting for children.

There are other aspects of the legislation that are big wins for children and our city. It increases charter public school accountability — which is critical to improvement. It prohibits for-profit organizations from managing charter schools. And it requires that test scores be posted on the school’s website, providing necessary transparency for parents.

This is the first step of many that need to be taken to create conditions for all our kids to thrive. Let’s hope Representative Aldridge’s example inspires other leaders in the Legislature, business community, and nonprofit community to speak up on behalf of children and in support of change.  Working together next year, we can ensure even more children go to schools that are equitably funded and held accountable for delivering learning outcomes for children.

Keith Williamson is Board Chair of The Opportunity Trust