It is too early to deem charter schools a success or failure in Mississippi. We are witnessing the beginning of a limited experiment in privatized "public" education starting this year in Jackson.
Because all the current charters are middle schools, one of the only true measures of success will be high-school report cards in four years' time or college admissions letters in seven years. If charter schools are able to change students' educational paths of attainment, that will be a success worth emulating. If not, then we need to know that, too.
Most advocates in our state agree that compared to other states, our charter law is a strong one, keeping for-profit charter management organizations out and embracing intervention for relatively few students in challenged districts.
But as Mississippians know all too well, laws are rarely set in stone. State law too frequently bends to political influence or gets mucked up in the wording of bills that could drastically change our charter law.
Politicians and citizens alike need to be wary of what can happen when we privatize exclusively for ideological reasons—in the midst of a heated debate to fully fund public schools, introducing more schools is only going to require more funding somewhere else.
Charter schools may be a piece of the solution, but they cannot possibly solve the whole puzzle. We see this nationally. In some areas, charter schools are successful, revitalizing communities and empowering students to attain more in their educational career. In other areas, charters have introduced a toxic, politicized and bitter battle, pitting communities against charter management organizations.
We believe public schools can be innovative, creative and designed with 21st-century curricula and still remain free and open to all children. But at the same time, we need to be wary of the "manufactured crisis" that conservative forces have created for public schools by overburdening them with less-than-adequate funding while prescribing too much testing.
Key issues of today's America—race inequity, income inequality, job security, the creative economy—are all challenges that can be overcome when a community commits to improving educational attainment for everyone's kids, not just our own.
We applaud the efforts of educators everywhere in this state working toward the common goal of bringing—not adequate or efficient—but excellent education to our students. And while charters may be part of that solution, it's crucial that we understand that no educational effort will be effective without full funding for public schools and expanded pre-K programs.
There is a fine line between supporting all children and tipping into dangerous territories completely driven by choice or autonomy. When politicians tout support for new charter schools but have refused to fully fund education since 1997, we need to watch and be wary. One wrong turn could put future generations of this state at serious risk.
Check out this week's cover story on charter schools here.