KC charter school report on results called inconclusive

Friday, November 30, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A report on the performance of charter schools in Kansas City has yielded inconclusive results. However, a researcher said future studies should provide more meaningful data.

The Missouri State Board of Education heard testimony on the report Thursday.

While not finding fault with researchers for the lack of solid answers, board member Peter F. Herschend of Branson, Mo., said the report doesn't lay to rest the key question of whether charter schools provide a better education than the Kansas City public school system, as supporters hope will be the case.

"Are these kids going to do better?" Herschend said. "If so, then we need to get behind charter schools. If not, then the experiment is just that."

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently within local school districts and free from many state regulations.

The 1998 state law that authorized charter schools in Kansas City and St. Louis requires the state school board to commission an independent study of charter school performance every two years.

Research & Training Associates Inc. of Overland Park, Kan., conducted the study, which looked at the 15 Kansas City charter schools that have completed two school years in operation. Other Kansas City charter schools and those in St. Louis, including one sponsored by Southeast Missouri State University, have only been open for one year and therefore were not evaluated.

Difficult to compare

Judy Pfannenstiel, a member of the research team, said the performance of schools included in the report is difficult to evaluate based on only two years worth of data. She also said drawing meaningful comparisons between charter schools and nearby public schools was hampered by the fact that all the schools collect and report information differently.

Plus, Pfannenstiel said, many of the charter schools share only that designation in common, serving different grade levels, employing varying teaching techniques and pursuing myriad educational missions, making comparisons among the schools meaningless.

However, the study did yield some information on charter school operations. Among the findings:

Following national trends, the schools reported problems getting started due to inadequate funds and insufficient facilities. Many had difficulty hiring qualified teachers, and faculty turnover in the first year was high.

Relationships between the schools and the Kansas City district were problematic. The schools reported difficulty in getting student information and records, and the district complained inexperienced charter school administrators required too much assistance. The school officials said cooperation with the district improved in the second year.

The autonomy from the district's bureaucracy was both a help and a hindrance. Administrators liked the freedom from lengthy procedures to contract for goods and services, but said the lack of a bureaucracy also provided a management obstacle.

Information from parents of charter school students was difficult to obtain, but those who responded to questions were generally satisfied with the schools.

Community members interviewed weren't convinced charter schools have a viable role to play in education. About 50 percent said they were undecided on whether there should be more charter schools; more than 35 percent said there shouldn't be at this time.


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