Advocates want more flexible charter school bill

Charter school advocates believe this is the year for Mississippi to make progress in school choice through more flexible charter school legislation.

In his first State of the State address, Gov. Phil Bryant said now is the time for Mississippi to pass a “workable” charter school law. A 2010 law passed by the state Legislature allows public schools that have been chronically under-performing for three consecutive years to be converted to charter schools if parents from the failing schools petition the state board of education. No charter schools have been created under this law.

Charter schools are open-enrollment public schools that are freed from some of the rules, regulations and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for accountability for producing certain results.

Senate Education Committee Chair Gray Tollison is expected to soon sponsor a bill that should have some traction in the Legislature. Tollison could not be reached for comment at press time.

A coalition of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy (MCPP), Mississippi First, the Black Alliance for Education Options and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has been working together on a model bill that would allow for the creation of charters in any school district where there is demand. The model bill also has mechanisms for removing charter schools that underperform.

Under this legislation, any state school district would have the opportunity to seek to create a charter school.

MCPP president Forest Thigpen says Mississippi parents should have options that are available in more than 30 other states including Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. “We believe it is fundamentally wrong for the government to tell parents they must send their children to schools that do not meet their needs. That’s what (the current system does) to families who can’t afford to move to another district or send their children to a private school or to home school,” he said.

MCPP and Mississippi First strongly believe that since new start charter schools have the strongest track record of success in the charter school movement, limiting charter authorization only to public conversions will limit the potential success of charter schools as an education reform tool in Mississippi.

Some advocates would restrict charters out of funding fears

>> Other groups — like the Parents Campaign and Blueprint Mississippi – are also advocating for charter schools, but only under more limited conditions due to funding concerns.

>> The Parents Campaign — a 60,000-member advocacy organization that seeks to improve Mississippi public education by engaging parents in the political process — only wants new charter schools to appear in underperforming school districts. The group’s director Nancy Loome said the state needs a new charter school bill that allows for more than just conversion schools but believes allowing startup charter schools in areas where good public schools already exist would be a bad investment of state resources. “You’re just not going to improve student achievement (by increasing costs or dividing resources),” she said.

Blueprint Mississippi, a coalition of the Mississippi Economic Council and other economic development organizations, favors only conversion schools. As part of the group’s report at www.blueprintmississippi.com its education chair Claiborne Barksdale said in a statement:

“With over 20 years of data to draw upon from national sources, research tells us that charter schools, like public schools, bring mixed results. The basic ingredients of exceptional leadership, teaching and parental involvement are key for success with either approach. This is why approach is focused and specific, allowing for charter schools to be established only for schools which are rated below successful for two consecutive years under state standards, allowing charter schools to be run only by those organizations with a proven track record with standards established by and charters approved by the Mississippi Department of Education and with attendance open to all students living within the school zone. In a state with limited resources, caution is necessary so we do not create a dual educational system that requires dual funding.”

In response to funding concerns MCPP’s, Thigpen said that most states’ charter school laws do not provide for public funding of new charter school buildings. “No extra money is required to fund charter schools; the money is simply spent in a different public school. Charter schools operate on the same per-pupil spending amount as a traditional public school.”

Additionally, Thigpen said, “It’s very discouraging that the business community, which understands competition better than anyone, would not endorse competition within the education sector. … There has been an elitist attitude (from the education establishment) that presumes that parents are not equipped to make the decisions for their children’s education.”

Noting that different children learn better in different environments, Carra Harris-Powell, outreach coordinator for the Mississippi chapter of the Black Alliance for Education Options, said, “We believe that all parents can make the best choices for their children. All parents need options. There’s not a one-size or one-fit model in education.”

BAEO is a national organization that supports parental choice policies and programs to improve education for low-income and working-class African American families.

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