Dozens of public schools eligible to convert to charter

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Maybe you saw it on the big screen in “Won’t Back Down.” Parent takeovers of failing public schools could be coming to Mississippi.

According to the Mississippi Department of Education, 35 schools are eligible for the first time to be converted to charter schools. A majority of parents must sign a petition seeking conversion.

Charter advocates say the conversion process is too difficult and doesn’t allow charter schools to start fresh, as some national charter groups prefer.

A 2010 state law allows the state Board of Education to grant up to 12 charters, with a limit of three per congressional district. Many charter advocates consider it needlessly restrictive. But the law did open, beginning with the September release of school ratings, a window for parents to take over schools that have scored what is now labeled an F on the school rating scale for three straight years.

Last fall, 82 schools were on track to be charter-eligible, but most improved their performance enough to get off the list, said Laura Jones, a manager in the state’s School Improvement Bureau. She told the state Board of Education yesterday that she gets calls from people interested in starting new charter schools — not converting failing ones.

State officials and charter advocates say they know of no petitions currently circulating. Parents would have to develop a full plan on how they would run the school, including a budget. The plan would have to show how new leaders would raise academic performance to at least a C grade under the current school rating system and include learning objectives that can be measured at least once a year. The conversion charter would have to make an annual report to parents, its district and the state Board of Education.

“There’s a lot that parents have to do to get the ball rolling,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign. “Putting together a successful application for a charter school is pretty difficult.”

Once a plan is created, each family with children in the school would get one vote on seeking a charter.

If a majority approved, the state Board of Education would evaluate the proposal and could set up a charter for at least three years. A five-member parents’ board would run the academic affairs of the charter, with oversight from the state.

The board could reject a petition, and if it did so, the board could move to take over the school itself under what’s known as a “new start.”

Unlike in many charter school setups, the school would remain enmeshed with the local district, which would get oversight over financial and administrative decisions. Charters would have to pay teachers at least state minimum salaries and teachers would remain in the state retirement system and health plan.

Children from the school’s attendance zone would be automatically enrolled, although parents could opt out. Only if there was space left would children from outside an attendance zone be allowed to transfer in.

Charter advocates proposed a much more permissive law in the 2012 Legislature, but couldn’t win approval in the House. Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are expected to press the issue in 2013.

“We anticipate something will be done on charter schools,” said Larry Drawdy, an interim deputy superintendent.

State board member Charles McClelland of Jackson asked whether the board could charter a school in a failing district. MDE staffers said that’s not legally allowed unless parents petition under current law.

“The board has looked at what are the options for schools to get better and charters are one of the options,” interim superintendent Lynn House said.

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