Caleb Rowden pushes for charter schools in his county over objections from local districts

Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent photo: 
State Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, gives a speech after the floor unanimously approved his appointment as Missouri Senate president pro tem Jan. 4, 2023.
Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent photo: State Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, gives a speech after the floor unanimously approved his appointment as Missouri Senate president pro tem Jan. 4, 2023.


Caleb Rowden only has a few more months left as a Missouri lawmaker, and he wants to leave a legacy in his hometown of Columbia.

The Senate president pro tem will leave office this year because of term limits, and before he's done he wants to change state law to allow charter schools in the local district. And even though nearly every school district in his county opposes the change, Rowden knows this might be the last chance to get it done.

"My stated goal is not to abolish public education and just make everything private. That is never going to happen," he told reporters last Thursday. "I want public education to be functioning, hitting on all cylinders. I want those schools to be museums where people can go and get the best education that they can get anywhere in the world, in a public school in Missouri, that would be incredible."

Rowden's district was redrawn for this election, with population growth in Columbia requiring Boone County get its own Senate seat. That gives Democrats a major advantage, and the frontrunner in the race to replace Rowden in the seat -- former Democratic state Rep. Stephen Webber -- is not on board with the charter school expansion.

Suzette Waters, president of Columbia Public Schools' Board of Education, said Rowden referred to the situation as they talked about her opposition to authorizing charter schools in the county. Rowden, she said, didn't think the incoming senator would have the same appetite for charters.

"This was his last chance to get something done in Boone County, because with Stephen Webber coming in, it wasn't gonna go," Waters told the Independent.

Waters met with Rowden after the Senate approved a 153-page education bill that coupled charter school expansion in Boone County with myriad other provisions, from an expansion of a private school tax credit scholarship to a change to the formula that funds public schools.

Currently, Missouri only has charter schools in Kansas City and St. Louis. Charter schools, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, are "independent public schools that are free from some rules and regulations that apply to traditional public school districts."

Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican, prepared an amendment to the legislation that would have required a vote of Boone County residents to authorize charters. After a brief meeting in Rowden's office, he ditched the idea.

Hoskins is currently running for Secretary of State, and was expecting to run against Rowden, who had announced his candidacy but had not yet filed at the time of their conversation.

Hoskins told the Independent the meeting with Rowden didn't include talk of the Secretary of State's race nor any promises or deals. Less than a week after that meeting, Rowden announced his withdrawal from the race, saying a retirement from politics is what is best for his family.

"There were rumors and speculation that had been going on for several days because he had not yet filed," Hoskins said, "but his decision to not run for Secretary of State had nothing to do with me not offering (my amendment)."

Hoskins has spoken negatively about Rowden's role as president pro tem this session, especially after Rowden removed Hoskins and other members of the Senate Freedom Caucus from key committee positions. But when Rowden asked him not to offer the amendment, Hoskins agreed.

"Sen. Rowden has been an advocate for charter schools, and he'd like to see those going in Boone County," Hoskins said. "This is his last year as well as my last year. I have supported charter schools in the past and ultimately decided not to offer that amendment."

Rowden, who has represented Columbia since being elected to the Missouri House in 2012, has long called himself a "supporter of education reform."

His advocacy for charter schools and K-12 tax-credit scholarships has earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from like-minded donors, most notably retired investor Rex Sinquefield. Since 2020, Sinquefield and his wife have donated $625,000 to Rowden's political action committee, Missouri Forward PAC.

Yet as the charter expansion makes its way through the legislative process, some critics have even begun to question Rowden's motives.

Jeanne Snodgrass, vice president of Columbia Public Schools' Board of Education, during a public hearing on the legislation Thursday in a Missouri House committee, voiced her opposition and wondered aloud, without naming names, whether "someone with a sister that runs private schools might want to expand to charters and then get public taxpayer money for that."

Rowden's sister, Rebekah Jouret, is the principal of Christian Chapel Academy in Columbia, a private Christian school with students grades K-8.

Rowden balked at the accusation, telling reporters his support for charters is not based on any personal or familial benefit.

"Their Christian school would never become a charter school because they'd have to give up a tremendous amount of autonomy and their ability to teach things that are grounded in faith. I can't imagine that they would ever do that," he said. "I, frankly, never had that conversation with my sister."

"My support for education reform has been well-documented and has been long-running long before my sister was in that role."

The legislation that could bring charter schools to Boone County originated as an expansion of the tax-credit scholarships. Rowden is in support of enlarging the program and told reporters earlier this year he would even be in favor of a state appropriation for the K-12 scholarships.

All but one of Boone County's superintendents wrote in a letter earlier this month that lawmakers should focus on funding public schools.

"In Boone County, our public schools are the heart of our communities. Strong public schools mean strong, thriving communities. Public schools impact economic growth, workforce development, employment, and populations," the superintendents of five Boone County school districts wrote. "Dismantling those structures by introducing charter schools will hurt the very fabric of our communities."

Centralia was the only district left out of the signed letter to lawmakers.

Waters told The Independent that districts have concerns that introducing charter schools to Boone County will worsen an already restrictive budget.

"If every kid that leaves CPS and goes to a charter school comes from the same building in the same grade level, yes, we can economize by reducing our staff, just for those classes. But that's not how it works," she said. "They come from all different grade levels, a couple at this building, a couple at that building."

She worries the district would have to cut services even if just a few hundred children leave Columbia Public Schools. She discussed this with Rowden earlier this month after the Senate approved the legislation.

Rowden described it as a "great conversation."

"(Rowden) kept saying, 'We're only talking about a couple hundred kids. It is not going to hurt you guys that much,'" Waters recalls of their talk.

She told him her concerns, pushing against his lack of fear.

"I would say it was a respectful conversation, but at the end of it, we come from polar opposite viewpoints on what is appropriate for Boone County public schools," she said.

Rowden told reporters he hopes the legislation will pass with the inclusion of charter schools in his home county.

"I don't think that the implementation of a charter school or two or three in Columbia would in any way keep public education from continuing to flourish and grow and regain the trust in the community," he said.

A Missouri House committee is scheduled to vote on the legislation Tuesday.

The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

  photo  Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent photo: State Sen. Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg, a candidate for secretary of state, speaks at the Boone County Republican Lincoln Days dinner in Columbia in February.
 
 


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