Is Mississippi Too Selective with Charters? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Is Mississippi Too Selective with Charters?

Midtown Public Charter School, located in Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood, is one of the state’s earliest charters.

Midtown Public Charter School, located in Jackson’s Midtown neighborhood, is one of the state’s earliest charters. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

— Some parents in Mississippi who don't want to send their children to district schools or private schools have another option: charter schools. But as these publicly funded, privately run schools have proliferated across the nation, Mississippi's charter-school growth has been relatively sluggish. Only three charter schools exist in the state, all of which are in the Jackson area.

Krystal Cormack, a governor-appointed Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board member, says it is challenging for charter schools to establish themselves in Mississippi—and it is supposed to be. In states where the approval process for charter schools is lax, students lose out, Cormack said. "When students are in places that have pretty easy-going authorizing practices, schools and networks are authorized that don't necessarily have a strong plan for what they will do for students or how they will serve students."

While supporters of tough charter-school approval processes say strict authorizing regulations are needed to ensure only quality charter schools open in Mississippi, some say the process should be relaxed to allow more schools to open, and therefore more school choice for families.

"The longer we stall, the fewer schools we open, the fewer students we're going to serve," said authorizer board member Dr. Karen Elam told the Associated Press. "We're out here three years, and we've got three schools. We're missing the opportunity to help some kids that really need it."

Since the Mississippi Charter Schools Act passed in 2013, charter operators have been able to apply to the Mississippi Charter Authorizer Board to run public schools billed as an alternative for parents seeking higher-quality education for their kids. Nationwide, charter schools have operated for more than two decades.

Mississippi's charter-school application is intense. Hopeful operators go through a several-month, four-stage screening process, including submission of letters of intent. If their applications aren't up to par in each stage, they can face disqualification.

So far, four charter schools have made it through the process. Midtown Public Charter School and Reimagine Prep are in their second school year; Smilow Prep opened its doors to its inaugural class this August, and Smilow Collegiate will open next year. This year, the state charter authorizer board approved no new applications, most notably Ohio's I Can Schools, whose middling results in student achievement in Ohio and Indiana culminated in the state's Charter School Authorizer Board's decision to reject its application to establish three K-8 schools in Mississippi.

In a 2016 study examining the way charter authorizers approved schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, Tulane University's Education Research Alliance for New Orleans found that charter-authorizer discretion is critical to the success of schools. The study points out that a common criticism of charters is that authorizers "rarely close" low-performing charter schools, which is why being critical during the approval process may be especially necessary.

The report also noted that schools were more likely to see approval in the state of Louisiana if they had approval from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, a leading voice in charter authorizing practices.

William Haft, vice president of authorizer development at NACSA, says the organization sets the bar high when it comes to vetting charter schools. "It's critical that when folks want to start a public school and be entrusted with public dollars and public school children that they be well-prepared to do so," he told the Jackson Free Press.

Why Oversight Matters

NACSA reports that Mississippi has strong state-wide charter-school oversight. But despite best efforts, that front-loaded concern about applications and business models does little to regulate charter schools once they are established.

Charter-school parents speak highly of the schools and the opportunities the schools afford their children. Supporters call the schools and the idea of "school choice" a remedy to what they perceive as the failures of the public-school system, but that is not a guarantee. In some states, charter schools are top performing, but this is not a consistent profile; others have failed spectacularly, sometimes doing worse than regular public schools. Although many Mississippi parents and student are complimentary of their charter schools, the schools, which serve middle schoolers, have not seen test scores significantly surpass those of surrounding schools. So far, the state's charter schools do not yet have accountability ratings either.

Once the state rate them, if Mississippi's charter schools receive an "F" after three consecutive years, they may be recommended for closure; the state may not renew charters rated "F" in the final year of their contracts.

Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit education policy think tank, said this condition of the law could be helpful. In the early days of charter schools, Petrilli said many people thought that if a school did poorly, states and authorizer boards could just shut them down.

"Turns out, it can be really hard to close low-performing charter schools," he said. "Once a school is open and you're serving kids, parents feel like those choices should be respected. So it's a really politically contentious thing to overrule parents and shut down a school if they think it's the best option for their child."

That's why, Petrilli added, that it's crucial to have a tough approval process. In those states, "most likely, if a school is approved, it'll open and stay open for the foreseeable future," Petrilli said.

"So let's make sure it's high quality."

Sierra Mannie is the education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Email her at sierra@jacksonfreepress.com.

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