JACKSON — Groups say they are interested in opening as many as 30 charter schools in Mississippi.
Charter School Authorizer Board Chairman Tommie Cardin said he received letters of intent for as many as 28 schools by the 5 p.m. yesterday deadline. A Columbus group said it also applied for two more schools, and Cardin said he expects to accept applications that may have been delivered to an alternate address.
Eight groups say they want to open a school in the city of Jackson, but interest spans 18 districts from Moss Point to Marshall County. Some groups seek to open schools in more than one district, and each school is a separate application.
The board can approve only 15 schools per year, and the number of applications surprised some observers.
“I’m impressed, I’ll put it to you that way,” Cardin said. “There was interest out there and I didn’t really have a good sense of it.”
Lawmakers in 2013 approved an expanded law allowing charter schools — public schools run by private groups that agree to meet certain standards in exchange for less regulation — after a two-year fight. This application process is likely to lead to the establishment of the first charter school in the state.
“I’m impressed and encouraged by the amount of interest from all parts of the state in opening public charter schools,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who supported the law. “Mississippi parents want a choice in their children’s education to give them the opportunity for the best start in life.”
Applications are due March 14, with the board scheduled to vote on approvals in June. Board members have said they will be focused on making sure applicants pass a high bar, to guarantee effective schools.
“We want to ensure that applicants have a strong track record of academic achievement so that students and their parents can be assured of a high-quality education,” said state Superintendent Carey Wright, a member of the authorizer board.
Though the board has left open the possibility that schools could open in the fall, members have encouraged applicants to aim for fall 2015 as a more realistic goal.
Not all groups submitting letters by yesterday’s deadline will necessarily follow through with an application. Erika Berry, executive director of the Mississippi Charter Schools Association said one-third or fewer of interested groups are charter management organizations, which run charter schools elsewhere.
One challenge for applicants will be to demonstrate community support. Nashville Prep, a Tennessee group that submitted applications to open two schools in Jackson, said it was attracted by the need for improved educational performance in Mississippi.
“We don’t want to go somewhere where we’re not wanted,” Nashville Prep Founding Director Ravi Gupta said earlier this month. “We don’t want to go where we’re shoving it down people’s throats.”
Gupta said Nashville Prep was assigning a staff member to build support in Jackson. One of the city’s largest churches, New Horizon International, has already offered a building, and the pastor, Bishop Ronnie Crudup Sr., is joining the board of the Jackson schools.
But Jackson Superintendent Cedrick Gray said that charter schools would only be able to serve a few hundred of the district’s roughly 30,000 students. He people who wanted to improve education in the capital would work with the system.
“If you’re doing it to help improve the educational outcomes of the children of the city of Jackson, you can do what others have already done, which is partner with Jackson Public Schools,” Gray said, noting examples including Jackson State University’s work with Blackburn Middle School.