JEFFERSON CITY -- Support for charter school expansion gained ground Wednesday after overwhelming public testimony in the Senate.
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on a bill that would allow local districts to sponsor charter schools across the state. Currently, charter schools can only be started in Kansas City and St. Louis city school districts.
"This gives districts a lot more flexibility," Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, said.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, includes provisions for greater accountability for charter schools amid concerns that these schools are not performing in St. Louis.
"We like the accountability for public money," said Mike Reid, spokesman for Missouri School Boards' Association.
At a previous House meeting on the subject, several people expressed concerns about charter school expansion throughout Missouri and their ability to be effective."The vision is simply not happening at charter schools right now," said Byron Clemens, a spokesman for American Federation of Teachers Missouri at a Feb. 23 committee hearing.
The Senate committee also heard testimony Wednesday about a bill allowing charter schools to consider other achievements as credit for high school graduation. Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis City, said his bill would let charter schools to consider work experience and work study programs as acceptable high school credit.
Keaveny said this provision would allow students who previously dropped out of school to graduate on time and ease their adjustment to a traditional high school environment. The students would still complete the same tests as other Missouri high school students in order to graduate.
Keaveny's bill also allows students who live in St. Louis County homeless shelters but who came from the city to attend a charter school. Keaveny said there are often not enough homeless shelters in the city to accommodate children attending charter schools.
The principal of Shearwater High School, a charter school specializing in kids who dropped out in St. Louis, agreed with Keaveny.
"These kids should have a preference no matter where they reside," Stephanie Krauss said.
One Shearwater student, a former dropout, said he has lived in four different homeless shelters this week but still has not missed a day of school.
"Shearwater gives me a second chance, I thought I had no hope," Catrell Churchman said.
Another homeless Shearwater student said the school has provided a good foundation.
"It has been a better opportunity than any other school," Victor Whittier said.
Whittier said he had been afraid to go to school before going to Shearwater.
No one spoke out in opposition to either bill.
Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis City, also sponsored a bill allowing the St. Louis City Transition Board to establish charter schools in its district. Wright-Jones said Dr. Kelvin Adams, the superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, used the same system in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
"This would give them another tool," she said.
There was no opposition to Jones' bill.
The Education Committee will vote on these proposals when legislators return from their spring break on March 28.