Mississippi Charter Bill to Return as Senate Draft

Published March 23, 2012

A 14-12 vote sent Mississippi’s latest charter school bill out of the House Education Committee and onto the floor.

House Bill 888 would allow new charter schools to open. Mississippi currently only allows charter schools to exist if parents of students in a persistently failing school request that the state board of education convert it into a charter. It limits these conversions to 12 total from 2012-2019. The National Association of Charter Schools ranks Mississippi 42 on strength of its charter laws, right above the states that have no charter law.

Though the bill died in the House after not meeting the midnight deadline to pass, it will return once the Senate has passed its own version.

“There has to be heat applied to the conventional public school system to make [public schools] perform. They are consuming dollars and not producing,” said bill author and House Education Committee Chairman John Moore (R-Brandon).

Competition and Innovation
Moore said many public schools in Mississippi consistently perform poorly but are never at risk of being shut down, which is why families need charter schools as an option.

“[Conventional schools] are just open all the time no matter what,” said Stephanie Grisham, spokesman for the Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “They can’t really change things up quickly because there’s such bureaucratic layers.”

On the other hand, charter schools can “be innovative and turn on a dime,” said Grisham. “Not only is it helping kids, but the competition factor is fantastic, in that traditional schools are doing their own innovation to keep up with charter schools.”

Mississippi’s existing charter school law has severely limited competition.

“It’s been very restrictive and almost impossible [to start a charter school],” Moore said. “If the local school board didn’t want one, they could trump it. In other words, they were in charge of their own competition.”

Prime Concern: Quality
The main concerns of opponents are the accountability and quality of charter schools.

Rep. Reecy Dickson (D-Macon), a member of the Education Committee and a former superintendent, said she questions if charter schools can solve Mississippi’s fundamental education problems.

“[The problem] is much greater than coming up with this miraculous idea for how to solve the problem with how we’re educating our people,” Dickson said. “It’s cultural that education has never been needed. Generations still haven’t discovered the need to be educated.”

Grisham said many charters in California, Arizona and Florida are closed down if they don’t display academic success, which has improved charter quality overall by removing poor schools and providing a strong incentive for existing schools to perform.

Dickson said she would support charters if she knew they would improve schools.

“We don’t have any room for additional failure,” she said. “We don’t have time.”

‘Break the Lock’
Moore said the bill will have accountability requirements, such as that a certain percentage of charter teachers and administrators must be state-certified. He also emphasized the importance of preserving their autonomy.

“We don’t want to craft our charter schools to be as restrictive as the conventional school systems,” Moore said. “The largest bureaucracy in government is designed to be self-serving and very protective of its turf. The challenge is to break that lock on the ability to improve the system outside of the normal way we do business.”

Others fear funding will be taken away from the school districts.

“There is definitely that mentality that [charters] are essentially taking dollars away from traditional schools,” Grisham said. “They’re really not. If the student is going to a traditional school, then goes to a charter school instead, that money is just following the child.”

Grisham said more than two million children around the country are enrolled in charter schools, with another half-million on waiting lists.

“[Current public schools] have had time. Allow someone else to do it,” Moore said, adding that to give underperforming schools a monopoly on education is to “throw good money after bad.”

Image by redagainPatti.