A St. Louis mother disagrees with statements that charter schools do not educate special needs students. Carmen Ward says her 15-year-old son, Paul, who has autism and intellectual disabilities, has grown by leaps and bounds and credits the charter school he attends – KIPP St. Louis.

“KIPP advocated for Paul. They pushed Paul. They nurtured all of his gifts,” she says. “They found things in my son that I didn’t know was there – that he didn’t even know was there.”

Carmen Ward and her son, Paul

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, posed the question to Ward about a “misconception” circulating that charter schools refuse to admit kids with special needs and fail to educate them as well as other students.

“I have two kids who have autism and I’m fortunate because I live in Rockwood. SSD (Special School District) is awesome. My kids get great services and everything,” Dogan says.

During a Missouri House committee hearing Tuesday, Ward says she supports a proposed expansion of charter schools in Missouri towns with 30,000 people or more.

“It’s up to you (legislators) to determine whether they (students) are going to be able to contribute to the community they live in. You have all that power,” she says. “The alternative, which we already know, is to prepare them for the criminal justice system.”

Ward says charter schools have not eroded St. Louis Public Schools.

“This is not new people. It’s just now an issue, because, and if I’m wrong, I’m sorry, these white folks are coming in trying to put schools in the city. It was not an issue. We need this (bill). Anybody that’s against it (the bill), I don’t understand where your moral compass is to not want every child educated. It makes no sense,” says Ward.

Current Missouri law limits charter schools to St. Louis, Kansas City and any unaccredited school districts. Charter schools are state funded and operate independently of traditional public schools. Rep. Rebecca Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, has championed charter school expansion bills in the Missouri Legislature.

For years, lawmakers have wrestled with “School Choice” proposals aimed at expanding charters schools statewide. The issue has not been separated by party lines. It has been very contentious with opponents often contending that charter schools must be held accountable in the same way public schools are.

Missouri Charter Public School Commission Executive Director Robbyn Wahby says her office has become “experts” at approving and denying applications to open charter schools.

Missouri Charter Public School Commission Executive Director Robbyn Wahby

“We have rejected more applications than we have approved. The ones we approved are themselves vigorous because we have created a stringent set of standards that guide our decision making on everything,” she says. “It is so hard to get through our approval that it is not uncommon for a potential school to take years honing their application until they get it right.”

Superintendent Bill Nicely of Kearney Public Schools in western Missouri says the bill does not create a level playing field for Missouri schools.

“As a school superintendent, you might think that I’m automatically against school choice. I’m not. I’m also not a school preservationist. What I really want to do is I want to advance public education in the best and most economical way possible,” he says.

Traditional Missouri public school districts and charter schools are competing for state funding. Nicely says additional charter schools could backfire on the overall goal of advancing education.

“If Kearney school district, with 3,500 students, pushes the envelope with school district finances, so that we can create these programs for kids that ultimately lead to high-quality jobs, and then we are faced with a charter school expansion down the road, that could take kids away in an unpredictable way, I can’t plan and I can’t advance those programs.”

Otto Fagen, who lobbies on behalf of the Missouri National Education Association, says local school boards should sponsor charter schools because the current law is not at the “big picture” level.

“It has this tunnel vision approach,” he says. “There is no intelligence at the higher level that the rest of our school boards currently enjoy. They get to think about the needs, the demographics, they look at their data.”

Fagen says the current law is designed to say “yes” if a “minimum level” of competency is met. He admits the “state of the art of sponsorship” has improved over the years but he says the system is not currently set up to make sense for the whole community.

The Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education committee is considering Roeber’s bill. Roeber chairs the panel.

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