A second chance for Mississippi charter schools

Republicans in Mississippi intend to fight for charter schools during the 2013 legislative session, renewing a contentious battle from last year’s session.

Past charter school legislation failed in Mississippi after heated legislature debates over funding and teacher quality provisions. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

At a Mississippi Economic Council gathering in late October, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves vowed to support school choice legislation that would create more avenues for charter schools to open in the state, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.

Proponents say there may be a better chance of passing legislation in 2013 because the state’s failing school system has received increased attention from the media, and lawmakers came close to passing a law during last year’s legislative session. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has touted charter schools in neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana as models of success, and said charter schools are “desperately needed,” especially in failing districts.

The renewed push for charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, comes after voters in Georgia passed an initiative on Tuesday that will allow charter schools to open. Ballots are still being counted on a similar initiative in Washington State, which would allow 40 charter schools to open over the next five years. Charter schools are currently allowed in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

A 2010 state law in Mississippi makes it possible for failing schools to be converted to charter schools beginning in the 2012-13 school year if more than 50 percent of parents vote in favor of the conversion. Currently, 35 failing schools are eligible to be converted, but none have begun the process to transform into charters yet.

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But even supporters of charter schools say the current law wouldn’t change schools for the better, because it fails to give parents much power. A parent board can govern each converted school, but the local school board still has ultimate control and the State Department of Education has veto power over most decisions made. The parent board can hire a charter management organization, but that organization cannot control hiring of teachers or choose curriculum.

“It’s a parent trigger [law] that triggers nothing,” said Rachel Canter, the executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Mississippi First.

Canter says that new legislation would most likely preserve parent-triggered conversion, but would also allow new charter schools to be created from the ground up. She says a new proposal would let nonprofit organizations run charters and give them autonomy over decision-making.

Last April, a similar proposal failed by one vote after five Republicans in the House Education Committee broke rank and voted against the bill. And while Mississippi’s state Senate is majority Republican, there was resistance from Republican lawmakers who are concerned that charters will siphon money away from successful public schools in their counties. Canter says that the law also may have failed in April because many people didn’t know what a charter school was.

“I think people in the legislature have made a commitment to back up, and give people that time and space to talk about [charter schools] and think,” she said.

Under current Mississippi law, only failing schools can be converted to charter schools if a majority of parents approve. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

But opponents of charters in Mississippi are concerned that charter schools could become segregated if they end up catering to students who would otherwise be in private schools. Democratic leaders have criticized House Speaker Philip Gunn, who recently announced plans to remove a Democrat from the Education Committee and fill the position with a Republican, who is a known charter school supporter. Brandon Jones, a former House member, called the move “unprecedented,” and accused Gunn of changing the rules to ensure the legislation will be passed. Opponents have also protested parts of past charter school legislation that would have exempted teachers from holding state certifications.

“Lawyers all have to get licensed and certified and so do doctors,” said Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators to the Jackson Free Press. “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 degree.”

The renewed push for charters adds to an increasing list of potential education initiatives up for discussion when the state’s legislative session convenes in January.

The state consistently posts some of the lowest test scores in the country, and Reeves called for higher academic standards at the Mississippi Economic Council meeting. Legislators will also consider requests to fund early childhood education for the first time in the state. Mississippi is the only state in the South that does not provide state-funded preschool, which many say could help reduce the achievement gap.

“We all know that public education in Mississippi is terrible,” Canter said, adding that although policy hasn’t changed yet, just seeing legislators focus on education has been encouraging. “We all know we have to do something.”

POSTED BY ON November 12, 2012