Mississippi public school students are beginning their 2011-2012 academic years, and some parents are unhappy with their children’s schools and wishing they had another place to go.
Cynthia Jackson, the mother of a rising fifth-grader in the Canton School District, wishes she could afford to live within the Madison County School District, where the schools are better.
“I have to pass (Madison public schools) every day to go to work. It’s kind of heart-breaking to look over there. It’s been bringing tears to my eyes that this is where my child needs to be, and I can’t do anything about it,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s child has attended Canton School of Arts & Science since he was in kindergarten. She has watched the school’s academic rating decline from a high-ranked Level 4 under the old rating system to “at risk of failing.”
Jackson favors school choice and charter schools, which are publicly funded schools given certain freedoms from typical school governance in exchange for higher academic accountability.
“I’ve been researching charter schools. It sounds like a good thing. Knowing that two miles down the road in the same county I’m in things are working so well — we just need a choice to be able to go there,” Jackson said.
Charter school advocates
The Mississippi Center for Public Policy thinks allowing school choice and charter schools is the way to challenge existing public schools to improve.
“In every other sector of the economy, competition drives improvement. If the business sector, which understands competition, doesn’t get behind school choice, nobody will,” said MCPP president Forest Thigpen.
Data from the center’s recent “Educating Children” study shows that over time more money has been added to the system, student achievement has not improved significantly. (See inset.)
Mississippi Public Schools Spending:
>> The average teacher salary — $42,308 — is 33 percent higher than the average teacher salary in 1980, after adjusting for inflation.
>> Public schools spend an average of $8,930 per student, which is 111 percent higher than the 1980 spend — after adjusting for inflation.
>> The student/teacher ratio is now less than 14 students per teacher.
>> Public schools have 29 percent more teachers in the schools than in 1980.
>> Average 2010 ACT score was the same as 1992.
>> Average 2010 eighth-grade reading score was the same as 1998.
>> Average eighth-grade math score improved, but improvement has stopped.
Thigpen said MCPP does not think Mississippi should cut back dollars spent on education, nor does the group believe that all Mississippi public schools are poor. MCPP does believe the government should not be able to force parents to send children to schools that do not meet their needs and that fundamental changes in Mississippi’s education model need to be made.
In addition to charters, MCPP thinks school districts should allow a student to attend school in another district is willing to accept the student without the home district having to approve the transfer. Under this plan, the per-pupil funding would also be transferred to the new district.
Mississippi First, the state’s only non-profit dedicated solely education policy, also favors charter schools.
“We support high-quality charter schools with high levels of accountability built into the system,” said Rachel Canter, Mississippi First executive director. “The bargain that charter school authorizers make with operators is, ‘We’ll give you a high level autonomy to run your school independent of the local school board if you can provide superior education.’”
Mississippi First favors targeting charters to areas that have had chronically under-performing schools for a long time. Students from those areas often cannot afford to move to an area with better public schools or attend a private school, if a decent one exists nearby, Canter said.
Once charter schools are created, a lottery system is typically used to select interested students for enrollment.
Mississippi’s current charter school law
Mississippi’s current charter school law is the New Start School Program and Conversion Charter School Act of 2010, which school choice advocates call weak.
Canter said the law is a “classic example of legislative sausage making.”
The act allows parents of students of a school that has been failing for three consecutive years to request that the state Board of Education turn it into a charter. If 50 percent of a failing school’s parents are in agreement, they can request school be converted to charter and seek State Board of Education authorization.
However, under the law the charter school and board would not be completely independent of the local school board. If a charter school operator was hired, the operator would not have authority over curriculum, personnel or budget, Canter said.
Charter school opponents
Those opposed to the creation of Mississippi charter schools fear that these schools would allow a return to racially segregated public schools by allowing private academies to gain public funds for their schools.
Both MCPP and Mississippi First believe a state charter school law should address this concern.
“State law should prohibit all current private schools in Mississippi from being eligible to convert to public charter school status,” Mississippi First has said.