Mississippi's charter schools got a boost when the Mississippi Senate passed a HB 238 on March 2. Charter schools are independent public schools, cut loose from regulations of a school district, but they are publicly funded and hold to the basic definitions of a public school. They cannot exercise preference in admissions, cannot teach religion and cannot charge tuition.
Rather than promising obedience to a voluminous education code, such schools promise academic results, in a document called a "charter"; if they fail to meet the requirements of this contract with the state, the school can be shut down.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said the Magnolia State is "ranked 41 out of 41 states in the U.S. that have charter school laws." The state currently has only one charter school: the Hayes Cooper Center in Merigold, Miss. It is an elementary-level school with about an 18-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and their students score over 90 percent on most of the Mississippi Curriculum Tests.
However, one of the concerns is whether or not the school is picking just cream-of-the-crop students, especially with almost 60 percent of its students being white. With the state average being 39 percent white for other elementary schools and this school being in the Delta region, there is some concern over how the students are being selected.
The bill passed easily under the gavel of Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck with a vote of 28-9. Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, asked Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, in a heated debate before the vote: "Would you be able to look into the eyes of the principal of the only charter school and tell her you were responsible for closing her school when you don't vote for this bill?" Jordan, who has taught chemistry and science for 32 years, answered back, "With 20/20 vision, yes, I would." He then shot back with, "Would you be able to look into the eyes of the students and principals of the 28 to 30 school districts that are going to close if we don't vote to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program?" Nunnelee didn't answer Jordan's question.
As an educator, Jordan said he fully supports the public schools. He thinks we should raise taxes to get the money we need for the school systems. He declared, "I pay taxes, too, and I'll pay more." He asked the supporters of this bill how they can expect to provide schools like these with money when we can't even fund the schools we currently have.
There is also the question of accountability. During debate, Sen. Gloria Williamson, D-Philadelphia, asked Chaney: "Did you not ask the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents (MASS) what they thought about this bill?" and he replied with a "No." She then asked: "Do you not think that MASS is as good a source as chairman of the Education Committee?" He shot back with another strong "No!"
Why did Chaney react this way? Dr. Sam Bounds, executive director of MASS who has worked in the Brookhaven system for 34 years, says superintendents are concerned that the bill could take local school boards, which represent the community, and the superintendent, out of the approval process. Therefore, a majority of a staff at a school or just a group of parents can get together and petition for a charter school."
That could hurt other public schools. "There's always concern if it draws money from public funding. Every child deserves the same quality of education regardless of placement. A charter school takes away from equity and adequacy."
Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, who has helped revise many of the governor's reforms for the House Education Committee, strengthens Dr. Bounds' argument. "There are a number of us who are quite concerned about the establishment of charter schools because the money will come out of the district funding, and yet the local districts will have no managerial authority over the school, leaving it solely to the Department of Education," he said.
Mayo also said that concerns exist that higher-performing students will be the ones primarily going to these charters—costing the public schools more because lower-performing students need more teachers, assistance and resources. And there is the question of lowered test scores in those schools.
Besides, Mayo said, there is "no big outcry for charter schools in this state." He said that the only people supporting charter schools are people who already send their kids to private schools. In addition, he said, "charter schools are often started by people that are mad at their principal."
During the debate on HB 238, some lawmakers expressed concern that one of the descriptions of a charter school says that it is nonsectarian in all operations and not affiliated with a religious organization. However, when one of the senators asked Chaney if a church or religious organization could spearhead or start a charter school, he responded, "Yes, but the school would remain unaffiliated with the church," leading some to wonder if this is a back door for churches to get into the public school system.
Susan Womack, the executive director for Parents for Public Schools of Jackson, commented on the legislation. "I think we just want to be sure funds aren't moved from public schools to private schools, and I understand that charter schools are still considered public," she said in a phone interview.
She pointed out a disconnect in the discussion. "I don't have anything against them, but what I have a hard time understanding is if the government knows that smaller classrooms, less bureaucracy in the school and flexibility in the curriculum are good for the children, and the government lets charter schools have all this, then why they don't do that across the board? Why don't we put all that money and effort into educating all our children in public schools?"
But Womack's primary criticism lies in the diversity of the student body in terms of racial ethnicity and household incomes. She worries that the bill will allow charter schools to admit students "on the basis of a lottery, if more students apply for admission than can be accommodated." "There's something about putting the faith of a child's life into a lottery or just dropping their name into a hat." Besides, she added, "The charter in and of itself is not a guarantee that it will be a better school."
The Clarion-Ledger has a story about charter schools today.
The Glaring Error story is actually about the Senate's attempt to get the School for Math and Science (Columbus) and the School for the Arts (Brookhaven) out of the regular funding stream by converting them to charter status. That is not a true charter school as originally envisioned.
Charter school laws are simply codified attempts to circumvent the spirit of egalitarian puiblic education and get private schools paid for with public funds. Ms. Womack had the strongest point that if charter schools are the end all and be all of public education success, why aren't all public schools changed to charter schools with a wave of the senatorial wand?
I have to tell you that after the actions of the MS Senate on the ed funding bill yesterday (3.9.05), I am floored that there isn't a greater outcry from the education secter and the public in general. Can you believe that 6 Senate Democrats voted against the amendment to replace the House levels of funding? And one walked out rather than vote!
Next time someone from the legislature gives us an argument of "bounced checks" resulting from funding MAEP, I say we all chip in and buy them a nice steak plant ...er... I mean [color=red]plant[/color]!
Look at this on the National Education Association's website:
The article is entitled "Charter Schools Show No Gains over Public Schools"
- Brett Potter
Also it's official..."In its official evaluation of the federally funded Public Charter School Program, the U.S. Department of Education found that many charter school authorizers lack the capacity to adequately oversee charter school operations, often lack authority to implement formal sanctions, and rarely invoke the authority they do have to revoke or not renew a charter. Where charters have been revoked or not renewed, the decision has been linked more to noncompliance with state and federal regulations and financial problems than with academic performance. " (taken from the NEA website as well)
The findings of the Dept. of education are here.
- Brett Potter
The study found in the link directly above also shows that charter schools in five states were less likely than public schools to meet state performance standards.
- Brett Potter