School buses wait Tuesday outside Thomas Hart Benton Elementary School in Columbia to take students home from the first day of classes. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

A years-long impasse over increased funding for charter schools was finally broken in the Missouri Senate, leaving proponents optimistic the legislation could finally make its way to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, unveiled a new funding mechanism last week to close a discrepancy in the amount that charter schools are funded versus traditional public schools.

Rather than transferring funds from school districts to their charter counterparts, the funding would come from the state through an adjustment in the foundation formula, the method by which Missouri calculates aid for schools.

“It’s definitely not the perfect way that I would do this,” said Koenig, the bill’s handler in the Senate. “But I think it’s a way we can move forward and come to a compromise and get this back over to the House.”

The bill received initial approval from the Senate and is expected to clear the chamber this week. The House, which passed a different plan earlier this year, would have to sign off on the changes to send it to Gov. Mike Parson. 

The new funding method would rely on updated property values, which previously had not been revised for charter schools since 2005. As a result, charter schools in Kansas City received about $1,700 less per student on average, while in St. Louis the amount was $2,500.

“Instead of making their slice smaller,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said of traditional public schools’ funding, “we made the whole pie bigger.”

The bill also now includes additional accountability measures for charter schools that mandate charter schools management companies be nonprofits, that board members be Missouri residents, and that test scores be posted on the school’s website.

New provisions were also added that would allow parents to directly enroll their students in Missouri’s virtual education program — rather than only allowing it with a school district’s approval. It’s a change lawmakers have sought since Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program, or MOCAP, was expanded in 2018.

Both parties’ top Senate leaders cast the compromise as a win last week, with Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, predicting the bill will pass out of the Senate on a bipartisan vote.

But some senators’ still warned that despite the changes, the bill would not receive their support.

“We still need to understand that there are things that are not resolved,” said Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, who called for greater oversight of charter schools. “I don’t believe that the voice of the people in St. Louis city is being heard.”

The bill would currently only impact St. Louis and Kansas City — the only areas where charter schools are operating. It’s unclear if St. Louis Public Schools and Kansas City Public Schools are on board with revisions adopted last week or if the districts would like to see additional changes. Representatives for both districts did not respond to requests for comment.

Douglas Thaman, the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association’s executive director, said students in charter schools deserve equitable funding, and “I think it’s a good solution for everybody.”

Before it can receive a final vote in the Senate, the legislation must first pass out of the Senate Committee on Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight.

A hearing Monday afternoon where the bill was scheduled to be heard has been canceled. Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield and chair of the committee, could not immediately be reached for comment.

It remains to be seen if the compromise will be enough to sway lawmakers who were previously staunch in their opposition when the bill passed out of the House last month on a slim margin.

Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs and sponsor of the House bill, said last week he was still parsing through the language but was grateful it would fully fund students in charter schools.

“The state made a promise to them and their parents back in the late 90s,” Richey said, “and we need to make good on that promise.”

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, was one of only five Democrats who voted to pass the bill out of the House last month. He attached a provision that would have delayed the bill’s impact on St. Louis Public Schools for five years. That amendment and others were absent from the Senate version adopted last week. 

Aldridge said he had lost sleep over the bill’s original source of funding, which would have transferred funds away from St. Louis Public Schools.

“Literally, I’ve cried over (that),” Aldridge said, “And questioned myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”

Under the original bill, it was estimated the district would send $18 million to charters, while Kansas City Public Schools would send $8.2 million.

Thaman said there would not be a direct fiscal impact on either district under the new legislation.

“If anything, it is a benefit to the local school district, because they are going to continue to receive a significant amount of money of local tax dollars every year for students that are not enrolled in their schools,” Thaman said.

Aldridge said Thursday he was glad to see the Senate close the gap through state funding instead, and said he was hopeful it would garner support from more lawmakers.

“This building, it takes a lot to make a cake,” Aldridge said. “There’s two chambers, and there’s always ways to get it started in one side of the chamber and make it better in another side of the chamber where we can bring it back and make ultimately good legislation.”

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