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St. Louis parents head to Jefferson City to advocate for public school funding

JEFFERSON CITY — Dozens of St. Louis parents traveled to the Missouri Capitol on Wednesday to support opposite sides of legislation that would shift millions of dollars from traditional public schools to charter schools.

The Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the school funding bill sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester.

Currently, St. Louis Public Schools receives more money per student compared with charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. The rates are calculated through a funding formula that sends more state dollars to charter schools and more local dollars to public schools.

Administrators in SLPS said the state should fully fund all public schools without cutting the district’s budget. They point to some of the additional expenses in the district compared with charter schools that justify the imbalance in funding:

• SLPS educates about 90% of the homeless students in the city.

• The district is required to provide transportation to all schools; about half of charter schools voluntarily provide transportation.

• SLPS’ rate of students in special education is 15%; the average in charter schools is 12%.

• All teachers in SLPS must be certified, compared to 80% in charter schools.

• SLPS offers a comprehensive, free preschool program.

Charter schools, which are tuition-free, have long called for a “fix the glitch” solution that would even the funding formula that is based on an outdated measure of property taxes.

A fiscal analysis of this year’s version of the bill estimates it would divert more than $18 million from SLPS and $8 million from Kansas City Public Schools to charter schools in those districts.

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Public Charter School Association, acknowledged the city district’s additional expenses and said the group hopes to negotiate a compromise with SLPS to carve out some of that funding. A similar agreement outside of the legislation has been worked out in Kansas City, Thaman said.

The bill and a similar version in the Missouri House have been filed for years but have failed to reach the governor’s desk. This year, with increased attention on public education spurred by the pandemic, more parents have come to lobby legislators to their side.

About 50 parents from SLPS traveled to Jefferson City for the first time in years to “dispel the narrative that SLPS is only attended by students who have no other choice,” said Emily Koeltzow, president of the SLPS Parent Action Council.

The parents “love their schools, they feel safe and secure, and their children are thriving,” she said.

Karin Upwood said her family chose SLPS over charter schools for her daughter Lenore, 12, who uses a wheelchair and attends McKinley Middle School, a magnet for gifted students.

“We could not find a school outside of SLPS that would address her medical needs and academic needs,” Upwood said. “We could have moved to the county, but we want to be a part of this community.”

A similar sized group of charter school families also traveled to Jefferson City to show their support for the spending bills.

“Nobody wants to take money away from (SLPS), we just want the same amount,” said Stephanie Bolego, whose two children attend Gateway Science Academy in St. Louis.

Several students received excused absences to come to the capital city, including second grader Ethan Murray from the charter network’s Smiley campus in south St. Louis.

“I came so people will also support our school,” he said.

The legislation is HB 1552 and SB 869.