Classroom
Susan Pendergrass

Legislative sessions are wrapping up, and students and parents in some states have scored major wins. Lawmakers have seen beyond the breathless claims that school choice kills public education and recognized that children are unique and have unique needs.

In Tennessee, important improvements were made to the charter school law. In addition to public charter schools and an education savings account (ESA) program for students with disabilities, up to 15,000 students in two low-performing Tennessee counties will now be able to get an ESA worth up to $7,300 to customize their education.

Florida, where there are over 650 charter schools and four existing private school scholarship programs, just added a scholarship program for up to 18,000 low- and middle-income students. Florida will now have scholarship programs for students with disabilities, students who are bullied, students not reading at grade level, students in low-performing districts, and low- and middle-income students who simply want to choose something other than their assigned public school.

Unfortunately, the Missouri legislature took the opposite tack this session. Bills to make it easier for charter schools to expand to other cities in the state and an ESA bill were both filibustered. Senators who represent low-performing school districts chose to prevent their colleagues from even voting to give parents options. They repeated the tired claim that school choice is an effort to kill public education. But public education is alive and well in Tennessee and Florida – two of the states with the largest gains on national assessments.

There is a strong coalition that works to uphold the status quo in Missouri. Teacher union leadership, school boards, and superintendent’s associations keep an iron grip on the public school system, keeping it frozen in its current form. In addition, it’s very difficult for parents and other stakeholders to get any useful information about the performance of their local schools. They’re given an annual performance review (APR) score, which is difficult to interpret, and very little else. As a result, it’s virtually impossible to hold the public school system accountable and parents are unlikely to demand change.

But maintaining the status quo requires that parents in Missouri remain in the dark. If they got useful, easy to understand report cards on their schools with a rating system that made sense, like a letter grade, they might demand something different. If they found out how parents in rural Kansas, Arkansas and Idaho can choose a charter school designed to fit their community, they might want one for their town. If they realized that middle-class parents are choosing to stay and raise their families in DC, Detroit, and Newark, they might think differently about how Kansas City and St. Louis charter schools are treated and funded.

How long will Missouri continue to cross its arms and staunchly defend the status quo of thirty years ago? How long will the positive stories of innovation and reform in public education only be about other states? How long will the coalition behind the status quo be able to keep everyone in the dark?

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.