Charter Schools Rock?

Photo by Alanna Leist

Every weekday just before dawn, Carra Powell rises to dress and feed breakfast to her three children before making the 17-mile one-way trek to a private Catholic school across the state line in Tennessee. Powell and her children, ages 5 to 10, live in Horn Lake, a north Mississippi town of 26,066 just south of Memphis in DeSoto County, home to the state's largest school districts. Despite DeSoto County's reputation as also being one of Mississippi's best school systems, the elementary school Powell's children attended wasn't cutting it, especially for her middle child and only son, Nicholas, who had struggled with reading and fitting in socially.

"The schools are so big, and the schools are so overcrowded," Powell said. About 1,500 students attended the DeSoto school for kindergartners through second graders. "That's bigger than most high schools. He just got lost in the crowd and slipped through the cracks. That's easy to do even for a student that isn't having struggles."

Year after year, Nicholas' teachers would warn Powell that her son might not pass to the next grade.

"I had that conversation for three years. And you know, how heart-wrenching is that conversation when you're doing everything? You're hiring tutors and you're going and talking to teachers; you're talking to principals; you're working with your child; you're reading to them every night," Powell said.

Meanwhile, her eldest daughter, Sydney, had a different kind of problem. A gifted student, Sydney's teachers relied on her to fill in as somewhat of an assistant teacher instead of challenging and pushing her ahead of her classmates.

Through one of Nicholas' tutors, she found a private school in the Memphis area that charges tuition based on the parents' income. She started shuttling them a state away last fall. Since starting at the school, Nicholas' grades have improved. He made honor roll for the first time in his life, and his third-grade classmates crowned him Reading King of the Class.

"You never see him without a book. It's been a 180 in less than a year," Powell said.

Powell doesn't try to make the case that private schools are better than public schools. Instead, she argues that her experience demonstrates that each child should be in the environment where the child learns best. Now the Mississippi outreach coordinator for the Washington D.C.-based Black Alliance for Educational Options, Powell crisscrosses the state talking to parent groups and Jackson lawmakers advocating to give parents more options when the public schools—no matter how good they are—fail their child.

The alliance and Powell take an all-options-on-the-table approach to education reform, meaning they push for private-school vouchers and expansion of homeschooling. But Powell knows Mississippi isn't quite there, yet. In the meantime, she sees charter schools as the best hope for Mississippi parents like her who feel trapped in failing traditional public schools.

It's no secret that Mississippi's schools are failing too many kids. Mississippi ranks near the bottom among all states in a number of markers including children ages 1 through 5 whose families read to them more than 3 days a week, fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math levels, on-time high-school graduation and average composite ACT scores.

Nor has the Legislature figured out that the state's education—and by extension, economic—woes are the result of refusing to put enough money into education year after year. Among the states, Mississippi ranked 46th in per-pupil spending in the 2008-2009 school year. During that year, Mississippi spent $8,075 per student on education, $4,719 of that on teachers' salaries and other costs related to instruction. The national average for per-pupil spending was $10,499 during the same period.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the funding formula lawmakers are required to use to pay for education, is $250 million in the red.

Exactly how much of Mississippi's education problem results from poor funding and how much of it is the education community's resistance to change is subject to debate. What most people agree on is the fact that the system is broken and needs fixing.

Systemic Failure
Rachel Canter witnessed the failure of Mississippi's public education first hand. After finishing at the top of her high-school class in one of the state's best public-school districts, in Starkville, she went to college at the University of Pennsylvania. When she got to Penn, she discovered that she wasn't as ready for the rigors of the Ivy League as she thought she would be.

"I was not very well prepared compared to the people I went to college with. I was not very well prepared at all—and I was the top of my class," she said.

After graduating, Canter taught seventh-grade English at a middle school in the Mississippi Delta, which she describes as "absolutely terrible." The students who entered her classroom were three to four years behind in reading and math but were passing with As and Bs. One math teacher, she said, refused to teach on Fridays because he believed the students needed a break after four days of arithmetical inundation.

"I taught these kids for 100 minutes a day for one year of their lives—and that was it. I couldn't change the fact that their math teacher did not teach them math one day out of the week. I couldn't change the fact that they were three and four years behind in reading, and some of them couldn't read at all. I could only affect those hundred minutes," Canter said.

"I wanted to change that. That is not a problem with the children—that was a problem with the system."

In 2008, Canter joined Mississippi First, a nonprofit she heads as executive director, that has been leading the charge to introduce charter schools to the state (the group is also developing sex-education curricula for public schools) and to advocate for systemic public-school reform.

Such a radical overhaul of public education has been a tough sell in Mississippi where a long, dark history of racial mistrust, partisan posturing and limited (and shrinking) budgetary resources have made charters a political lightening rod over the years.

State lawmakers' reticence to give charters a straight up-down vote may have a lot to do with the fact that most people don't have the vaguest inkling what the hell a charter school is.

On that point, Mississippians might find solace to know they are far from alone in their ignorance. In 2010, Education Next magazine conducted a poll in which 80 percent of respondents didn't know whether charter schools could hold church service or charge tuition (they can't do either).

Charter schools are public schools that receive money from local, state and federal taxpayers but don't have to play by all the same rules as traditional public schools.

Charter-school students still have to take state tests, but contrary to popular belief, charter schools are not private institutions that can do anything they want. Charter school teachers aren't allowed to rap unruly children on the knuckles with measuring devices.

However, a charter school may be able to dump a load of cash on Justin Beiber to teach voice classes for year or fire a teacher for no reason than it's just not working out.

In exchange for having those freedoms, charter schools must agree to do certain things or risk closure, something that's rare for traditional schools.

The relationship between the state, which oversees education, and charter schools is similar to that of a homeowner and the contractor he pays to install his bathroom tiles. A group that thinks they're up to the task of educating children better than the competition—in this case an existing public school—approaches the state and asks for a charter. In the charter, or contract, the charter-school operator promises to deliver certain outcomes in exchange for per-pupil funding from the government.

If the organization said it can raise fourth-grade math scores in two years, close achievement gaps or graduate 100 percent of high schoolers, those promises go into the charter. The charter school is then contractually obligated to meet its goals or have its charter revoked and its school shuttered.

Since 1992, when Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter-school law, the numbers of charter schools and the numbers of kids the schools serve have exploded, but they still make up a small fraction of overall public-school student enrollment.

From 1999 to 2009, the number of students enrolled in charter schools jumped from 340,000 to 1.4 million, more than tripling in a decade. In the 10-year period, charter schools went from making up 2 percent of all public schools to 5 percent with about 4,700 schools in the 2008-2009 school year.

Fifty-five percent of charter schools are located in urban areas compared to 25 percent of traditional public schools. More than half of charter schools are elementary schools with middle and high schools accounting for 27 and 19 percent of charters, respectively. Charters are also growing in popularity in poor neighborhoods. Thirty percent of charter schools are considered high-poverty compared to 19 percent of traditional schools.

In New Orleans, where 2005's Hurricane Katrina sent thousands of families out of the city, shaking the foundation of the public-school system, charters filled the void. They now outnumber traditional schools by double. In 2009, 60 percent of Crescent City students attended charters.

As the popularity of charter schools has grown, the chorus of critics worried about the fallout for traditional neighborhood schools has also grown. In Mississippi, even dyed-in-the-wool public-education supporters won't publicly say that they're against charter schools. Instead, resistance to the introduction of charters has centered on the details of various legislative proposals that have come and gone over the years.

Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said his organization objected to both charter-school bills debated during the 2012 legislative session because the proposals would have allowed half of charter-school teachers to not hold state certification.

Charter operators believe staffing flexibility is a competitive advantage. A charter school could recruit a NASA rocket scientist to teach physics, for example, where a traditional public school would be limited to teachers who are certified science teachers, which are scarce.

Gilbert rejects that logic. "Lawyers all have to get licensed and certified and so do doctors. And there's not a hospital around here or a law firm that's going to hire 50 percent of lawyers who don't have their (law) degree," he said.

"If certification is an issue, we need to be talking about how to make certification mean something."

Mississippi Next?
On April 10, hundreds of people on both sides of the charter-school question gathered outside the second-floor committee room where the House Education Committee was set to vote on whether to send the Senate's charter-school bill to the House floor for debate and, ultimately, the first vote to ever take place on charter school legislation in the chamber.

When the door flung open at the meeting's conclusion, the crowd already knew the bill's fate from following the tweets and text messages from friends inside the cramped room: The bill failed by one vote. Five Republican members of the committee, under pressure from the superintendents in their districts, broke ranks.

The events that ensued perfectly captured the tenor of Mississippi's charter-school debate up to that point. Somewhere in the middle of the jeers from charter proponents, a woman with the Central Mississippi Tea Party allegedly shoved Rep. Reecy Dickson, an African American Democrat from Macon who voted against the bill.

After a tense hallway exchange, pro-charter Democratic Rep. Chuck Espy of Clarksdale delivered a thunderous rebuke of his colleague's attack and the rancor that consumed lawmakers over the issue throughout the session.

"I have watched this great body rise to some of its greatest points, and I've seen tensions flare and rise to levels I've never seen. But when a member is touched in any way, it is unacceptable," Espy said, his voice booming from the rostrum on the House floor moments after the vote.

Passionate people have always disagreed about education, and specifically the government's role in it. Horace Mann, whom history regards as the father of the American public education system, met resistance during the early 19th century against his push for common schools open to all children regardless of class or religious sect. Even graduates of the worst public schools know about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases Plessey vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. The Board of Education. It wasn't too long ago that the nation debated President George W. Bush's unfunded No Child Left Behind mandate.

The political rhetoric around charter schools developed in curious fashion.

City Academy High School in St. Paul, Minn., became the nation's first charter school to open in September 1992. In 1994, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, both teachers in the Teach for America program, established the Knowledge is Power Program in Houston. Doris and Donald Fisher, who co-founded Gap Inc. in 1969 San Francisco, then used their fortune to help replicate the KIPP model in cities across the nation.

In today's charter movement, you'll find strains of a 1960s ethos that emphasizes creativity and freedom from societal constraints, old-fashioned erudition and, most notably in Mississippi, competition and breaking up government's monopoly on public education.

The conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which advocates for free markets, limited government and "strong traditional families," was among the earliest charter backers in the state.

"Competition improves every industry service sector," said the organization's executive director, Forest Thigpen. "Schools are no different."

To improve its chances of getting a successful charter-school bill, Thigpen's group produced a short documentary in 2008. "A Stone's Throw" opens with a close-up of a silhouetted cotton boll, and then widening to an entire cotton field in full bloom. A gospel-and-blues-hued musical score provides the soundtrack for a slow-moving montage of dusty Delta sunsets, rusty river barges, ramshackle storefronts and rickety wood-frame houses lining crumbling streets.

Designed for distribution at black churches around the state, "A Stone's Throw" relies exclusively on testimony of African American parents, students, educators and education-reform advocates, each with praise to sing about the wonders of charters schools or a lament about the lack of charters in Mississippi—even though the phrase "charter school" doesn't appear until a quarter through the film.

Cleveland, Miss., native Sanford Johnson appeared in the film and acknowledges that blacks are understandably skeptical of charter schools, especially those who remember attempts to avoid school desegregation by setting up all-white "seg" academies following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Sanford, who is Canter's deputy director at Mississippi First (the two also attended the same high school in Starkville), said charter advocates have at times been dismissive of that history of mistrust to the movement's peril.

"We had to be able to confront that (history). We had to be able to say that is something that has happened in the past, but we also have to let people know that this is not about reconstituting private academies," Johnson said. "This is about parents having an alternative, especially parents who have nowhere else to go."

While Mississippi's charter proponents were preaching a version of the school choice gospel, national teachers' unions and other professional organizations that often align with Democrats were uncomfortable with charter schools' freewheeling approach to hiring and firing educators.

Nor were liberals enthralled with the desire to foist the principles of free-market capitalism and cutthroat competition to the education of little boys and girls.

Where Mississippi Democrats have carried the mantel against charter schools, nationally some Democrats, including President Barack Obama have expressed support. In March, Obama pledged $54.8 million in charter-school grants to Minnesota, New Jersey and Massachusetts and $255 million for charters in his 2013 fiscal year budget.

So politically charged was the charter issue in Mississippi that Republican Gov. Phil Bryant threatened to call a costly special session to force-feed charter schools down lawmakers' throat at taxpayers' expense. However, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, also a staunch charter-school proponent, balked at the idea of a special session, resolving to take the issue up again next January.

A Solid Foundation
Even though charter-school legislation is probably dead this year (Bryant has the power to call a special session anytime), most people believe that Republicans will eventually get their wish and pass a bill. With that in mind, even groups that have been cold to charter schools have resigned themselves to the fact that if you can't beat 'em, at least have some say on what charter schools should be like in Mississippi.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the Jackson-based Parents' Campaign, said she "would like to see a good charter bill for students who are trapped."

The Parents' Campaign supports allowing charters near chronically low-performing schools, requiring operators to have a successful track record, prohibiting for-profit companies from running charter schools, and ensuring the Mississippi State Board of Education is the only agency that can authorize charter schools.

Pam Shaw, an educational consultant with the Center for Education Innovation, believes that strong oversight from an independent, nonpartisan government authorizing board is essential. "The nature of melding politics and education is a recipe for failure," Shaw said.

Authorizing boards for charter schools vary from state to state. In Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Hawaii, South Carolina and Utah, charter boards that are autonomous from the state's board of education approve charter schools. In one rare case, Indianapolis gives its mayor sole power to authorize charter schools in that city's schools. Mississippi would likely have an authorizing committee compromised of mostly appointees from the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and state board of education.

To date, charter supporters have strategized that the best way to get any kind of charter schools is to first put them in high-poverty and under-resourced areas. In 1999, 13 percent of charter schools were in areas that the U.S. Department of Education considered high-poverty. The DOE's definition of high poverty is where at least 75 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Ten years later, 30 percent of charter schools were in high-poverty areas, according to the DOE.

Charter-school opponents charge that taking money away from local schools and giving it to charters would be the death knell for already struggling public schools.

Almost as perplexing as understanding the definition of a charter school is understanding how charter schools get money. It works like this: For every student sitting in a Jackson Public Schools classroom, the school receives federal, state and local funds for the students' education. If a child leaves JPS to enroll in a charter school, the state and federal money follows her, but the local money disappears.

Fewer children could mean lower expenses—fewer crayons, jump ropes, computers and copies of "To Kill a Mockingbird." It could also mean at some point, the vanishing cash begins to eat into a school's fixed costs such as utility bills and teacher salaries that have to be paid no matter how many students attend to the school.

Canter recognizes that the presence of charter schools might eventually affect the school's fixed costs; families fleeing JPS for Madison County schools have the same effect. If those families returned to Jackson to send their kids to charter schools, their property taxes would simultaneously boost the local public-school system, she added.

Canter disagrees with Loome's group on the issue of prohibiting so-called mom-and-pop, or homegrown charter schools, and allowing only charter management organizations (CMOs) with proven track records to operate charter schools.

KIPP is the mostly widely cited example of a successful CMO and the benefits it can offer ailing schools. With its national foundation headquarters in San Francisco, KIPP schools are scattered throughout the country in "under-resourced" areas of large cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, and small towns such as Helena, Ark.

KIPP's 109 schools in 20 states receive millions of dollars from the government and private donors for its cookie-cutter charter-school culture. "There's a certain way we want our kids to walk. There's a certain way we want our kids to talk. There's a certain way we want our kids to sit. There's a certain way they should do their homework. So, we just have high expectations for our kids no matter what they're doing," said Marcus Nelson, a teacher at the KIPP Delta School in Helena and in the MPPC's "Stone's Throw" film.

But KIPP is like the Whole Foods of charter schools—somewhat of a status symbol that everyone seems to want one in their town. But the organization is picky about where it chooses to hang out its shingle. Because KIPP can't be everywhere, Canter believes that locking out homegrown charter schools is unnecessarily restrictive.

"There are several wonderful charter schools that are created organically by homegrown local people, who are excellent educators, who wanted to come together to start a charter school in one specific neighborhood in one city in America," she said.

People and Results
Bishop Ronnie Crudup, pastor of the New Horizon Church in Jackson, adheres to the belief that competition from charter schools would make traditional schools step up their education game.

"We struggle with public education in Jackson. It seems logical that we would give parents more choice," said Crudup, whose church ran a private Christian academy. Should Mississippi ever enact a charter-school bill, Crudup wants to start a charter middle or high school with early input from prospective student's parents.

"I think what would be exciting about this is to get with a group of parents to build a school—to get their input to build a school," Crudup said.

Andrea Fisher, a parent of former Greenville public-school students, said when she moved to the Delta from Lompoc, Calif., a decade ago the schools weren't that good. Today, she said, lack of parental involvement has made them worse.

"It's so many factors. One of the things is parents don't care. Parents are not committed to good quality education. So you bring a kid to the high school. That kid doesn't have backpack, doesn't have a notebook. What (will the child) be doing? He will not allow the teacher to teach. It's simple like that," said Fisher, whose high-school age sons received scholarships to attend a private boarding school affiliated with Baylor University in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Fisher is surprised her community isn't outraged at the diminishing quality of the local schools. "I can not imagine this area was the (place) for civil rights in the '60s, ... hundreds of parents demanding that the schools get better. That is not happening here, but that should be done," Fisher said. "They're not doing anything differently. If you keep doing things that are a failure, how are you expecting different results?"

The question of results is perhaps the biggest unknown suspended over the charter-school subject. In 2009, Stanford University researchers examined charter-school performance in 16 states. The widely cited CREDO study (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) has become somewhat of an inkblot test in the charter-school fight.

"The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public-school options and (more than) a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools," the report's executive summary states.

Charter-school foes recite the 17 percent statistic like scripture. However, the study concludes that "elementary and middle-school charter students exhibited higher learning gains than equivalent students in the traditional public school system" and "students in poverty and English-language learners experience larger learning gains in charter schools."

One way to ensure charter schools are successful would be to develop and legislate an "accountability framework" for charter schools and hold them to it. Canter said that's exactly what Mississippi tried to do with recent, unsuccessful charter bills.

Unlike other states, the accountability framework in Mississippi's proposed law spelled out requirements. More importantly, proponents said, it detailed the charter renewal and revocation process.

Other state's charter laws leave it up to the school districts to come up with their own policies. Charters would be responsible for achievement and growth as well as for benchmarks that traditional schools don't have to meet, such as closing achievement gaps and graduating students who are ready for college without needing remediation. If a charter school doesn't do everything it promises to do, the authorizing board "shall" revoke the charter, according to the wording of various Mississippi proposals.

"If a charter only does as well as the school down the street, they shouldn't be in business," said New Horizon's Crudup.

Teacher certification arises as another common sticking point in any discussion about charters, which generally get more leeway to hire more uncertified and nonunion teachers, which they say lets them recruit people who don't come from the usual teacher-education tracks. Under rules for traditional public schools, it would be difficult for a businessman like Jackson native Jim Barksdale, a former executive at FedEx and Netscape, to teach a business or computer science course at a local high school because he lacks state certification.

"Highly qualified" teachers, according to the federal No Child Left Behind law, must hold a major or minor college degree in the field they teach, demonstrate competence on either the Praxis I or Praxis II exams, and have state certification, meaning they completed a college program in education. NCLB exempted charter schools from the certification requirement.

Increasingly, questions about established measurements of teacher quality have come into focus. The Future of Children, a collaboration of the Brookings Institution and Princeton University, found inconclusive evidence that state certification, holding a masters degree or being on the job for a long time translated into better outcomes for students.

Said Canter: "We're obviously not looking at the right things when we certify teachers. There's a range of performance among certified teachers and a range of performance in noncertified teachers."

Waiting for Charters
There is no way to know what kind of charter-schools bill Mississippi will get, whether on the off chance Bryant still tries to convene a special session this year or whether lawmakers start over from scratch in 2013.

Powell, the single mother in Horn Lake, believes that parents and lawmakers should get past the fear of the unknown that charter schools represent.

"If parents are happy with where their children are, they are not going to moving them. If parents are unhappy with where their children are, they will move them," she said.

Whatever happens with charter legislation, Canter of Mississippi First believes some good came out of this year's chaos.

"The amount of attention and conversation and passion and focus that people have put on education in the last three months because of charter schools has been phenomenal," she said. "Not a day goes by where you don't see some story in the news media about charter schools, (or) when some legislator is not having to discuss to how they feel about the state of public education in the state of Mississippi.

"I hope at the end of this session that the interest in public education that charter schools have generated doesn't go away. Charter schools are not even the tip of the iceberg," Canter said.

Sanford Johnson echoes his colleague Canter on charter schools being a relative small piece of a broader discussion that should take place on education.

"If you're saying that this is going to be something that's good for education but you don't talk about anything else that's related to education, of course there's going to be some skepticism there," Johnson said.

"There are charter advocates who have not been strong public-schools advocates. You have legislators and other folks that don't talk about any other education-policy issue. They don't talk in favor of pre-kindergarten.

"They don't talk in favor of teacher pay. They don't talk in favor of greater funding for MAEP, yet, when they talk about education, it's usually about charters. But you've got to be able to talk about more than that."


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