Mississippi Bill Would Expand Charter Schools

Published March 1, 2009

Mississippi—home to exactly one charter school and one of the nation’s most restrictive charter school laws—may soon expand its stable of options.

That will happen if a bill passed on a 37-11 vote by the state Senate in late January is approved by the House of Representatives. The House deadline for the vote is the end of February.

Mississippi’s current law allows only six existing public schools to convert to charters. In the 11 years since that law was passed, only one—a magnet school—has done so. “So in essence, we have no charter schools in the state,” said Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a research group fighting for school choice in the state.

Overcoming Resistance

The current bill, sponsored by state Sen. Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula), would allow up to 20 charter schools run by proven operators to open new facilities throughout the state. Local school boards would be given the first look at proposals, but authorization power would rest solely with the state board of education.

Previous attempts to expand charter schools in Mississippi were shot down by fears of racial segregation. Though Thigpen noted Watson’s bill has more support from the legislature’s Black Caucus than previous versions, opposition remains from some caucus members and from teacher unions.

“One of the things that frustrated me the most [during the Senate debate] was one of the senators kept saying the research is still out there; there’s no proof [that charter schools work],” Watson said. “But where the research is consistent is when you have a strong piece of law and a tough standard to allow charter schools on the front end, that’s when you get good charter schools.

“There’s been some resistance from the Mississippi Association of Educators and other groups that say you’re taking money from public education,” Watson continued. “That’s an absolute falsity—this is public education.”

Greater Accountability

To help tell Black Caucus members about the need for charter schools, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy produced an 18-minute video, “A Stone’s Throw,” contrasting interviews with Mississippi residents who want more school choice with the words of people living just across the state line who have access to effective charter schools in Arkansas and Tennessee.

“There are parents who have choices in the South that Mississippi parents just don’t have,” Thigpen said.

Under Watson’s bill, no local tax revenues would be used for charter schools; funding would come only from state and federal coffers and the schools’ own fundraising efforts. The bill also would require open enrollment.

“When you have a public school that’s failing, you pump more money into it. When you have a charter school that fails, you close it,” Watson said. “That kind of accountability is a great thing, and that’s why we wanted to bring it to Mississippi.”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

“A Stone’s Throw,” Mississippi Center for Public Policy: http://www.astonesthrowthemovie.com