Charter Schools 101


Charter Schools 101

Charter Schools are one of the more contentious subjects in education policy debates, and these debates are often not grounded in the facts. While charter schools have been a part of the U.S. education system for nearly 30 years now, these debates have only gotten more heated. Because of this, we here at the PRiME Center think it’s important to inform the debate with accurate information. In the coming months, we will explore charter school funding, accountability, and governance, but first, it’s important that we understand what charter schools are. With that in mind, we’re offering a primer on Missouri’s charter schools.

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public schools that have been given some higher levels of autonomy, but still receive public funds. This autonomy comes in many forms that vary by state. It can include allowing charter schools to implement a different curriculum than is typically found in traditional public schools, being able to opt out of the collective bargaining agreements, and to hire non-certified teachers. In exchange for this autonomy, charter schools enter into a contract with the state, their authorizer, or district that can close the school if it fails to comply with the terms of the charter. 

A brief history of charter schools

Charter schools have been open in the United States since 1991, when City Academy opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a group of veteran public school teachers hoped to gain more autonomy to offer programs for their struggling students. Today, roughly 5 percent of all public school students are enrolled in charters, with more than 7,000 charter schools operating in 44 states and the District of Columbia. West Virginia passed its first charter school law in June to become the 45th state with charter schools, but it will face an uphill battle as the state teachers union has said it will file a lawsuit. The last states without charter schools include Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota*, and Vermont.

How each state handles charter public schools differs. Each state’s regulations on charter school authorization, funding, governance, and accountability varies. Additionally, where and how many charter schools are allowed to operate in a state varies dramatically as well. States like Maine and Massachusetts limit the total number of charter schools that are allowed to operate in a given year, while other states limit the percentage of students within a district who can enroll in charter schools. 

Missouri’s charter schools

Missouri passed its own charter school law in 1998. As the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education states, “Charter Schools are independent public schools that are free from some rules and regulations applicable to traditional public school districts as specifically identified in charter school law.  In exchange for flexibility, charter school sponsors hold the schools accountable for results. Charter schools are nonsectarian, do not discriminate in their admission policies, and may not charge tuition or fees.” While charter schools cannot prohibit eligible students from seeking admission, schools are allowed to implement preferences in their admissions processes that include 1) residents of a specific geographic area the charter school has identified to serve within the school district boundaries, 2) siblings of currently enrolled students, 3) high-risk students for charter schools serving that student population as part of its mission, and 4) students of a particular gender when the charter LEA is a single-gender school.

In Missouri, a charter school may open in any of the following locations:

  • In St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) and Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS)

  • In an unaccredited school district

  • In a school district that has been classified as provisionally accredited for three consecutive school years under specific conditions^

  • In accredited districts, if the local school board chooses to sponsor a charter school

However, charter schools currently operate only within KCPS and SLPS.+ Any student who resides within these districts is eligible to enroll in a charter school. For the 2019-20 school year, there will be 46 charter schools operating under 21 local education authorities (LEAs) in Kansas City and 43 charter schools operating under 18 LEAs in St. Louis.

Charter sponsors

Charter schools in Missouri must have a sponsor (the equivalent of an “authorizer” in other states)  to open and operate in the state. Sponsors are approved by the State Board of Education (SBE). When considering a renewal of sponsorship authority, the SBE will review that the sponsor is in compliance with all sponsorship requirements, including ensuring funds are spent on schools, maintaining a rigorous application process for any entity hoping to open a school under their sponsorship, negotiating and executing a charter contract to hold schools accountable, and developing a process for schools to renew their charter. The following groups are currently eligible to serve as sponsors in Missouri:

  • The special administrative boards or the school boards of SLPS and KCPS

  • Local school boards of fully accredited districts

  • A public four-year college or university with an approved teacher education program that meets regional or national standards of accreditation

  • A community college, the service area of which encompasses some portion of the district

  • Any private four-year college or university with an enrollment of at least one thousand students, with its primary campus in Missouri, and with an approved teacher preparation program

  • Any two-year private vocational or technical school designated as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, which is a member of the North Central Association and accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, with its primary campus in Missouri

  • The Missouri Charter Public School Commission created in Section 160.425, RSMo.

There are 4 eligible sponsors in Kansas City and 7 eligible sponsors serving St. Louis. 

Charter school sponsors are required to develop a variety of policies and procedures to ensure their schools are implementing programs to provide an education to students who have chosen their school. This includes the processes for overseeing schools, what is expected in an application to open a school, and how a sponsor can intervene and revoke the charter of an existing school in their portfolio. Just like a charter school can be shut down for failing to meet the standards laid out in their application, a sponsor can have its ability to authorize schools removed by the SBE for failing to comply with policies and procedures laid out in state law.

As we can see here, there is a lot to consider with charter schools and we have only just barely scratched the surface. Missouri’s charter school law is full of nuance and details that establish the procedures by which these schools are funded and held accountable for educating students in the state. We’re excited to dive into the state’s charter school law and help to inform the debate on charter school policy.

If you want to know more about Missouri’s charter schools, check out our Kansas City and St. Louis regional profiles!


*South Dakota law had allowed for charter schools that serve primarily American Indian students from federally recognized tribes if the state receives a federal grant, but this law was repealed. (

^Districts whose accreditation decision is based solely on being in financial distress or on financial hardships as decided by a vote from the State Board of Education or if the Local Board of Education chooses to sponsor a charter school.

+Any student living in an adjoining district to KCPS or SLPS may enroll in a charter school if the home district is unaccredited.


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