Research & Commentary: Mississippi Charter School Expansion

Published March 8, 2016

On March 1, the Mississippi Legislature passed two different charter school expansion proposals. The first bill, passed in the Senate, allows for the creation of charter schools in “C”-rated school districts without the approval of the local school board. Currently, the state only permits charter schools in “D”- or “F”-rated districts without school board approval, although there are no “F”-rated districts in Mississippi. Under current Mississippi law, “A”, “B”, and “C” districts must receive input from local school boards before an application can be sent to the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board for permission to open a charter school.

The Senate bill also allows students to cross district lines to attend a charter school and grants charter conversions – charter schools that open in buildings that were once housed by a public school – the right to purchase or lease their school building from the district at market value. Allowing children to cross district lines would make it easier for charter operators to open schools in rural areas, such as in the Mississippi Delta region, where school districts are scarcely populated.

The second proposal, a House bill, would only allow children from “D”- and “F”-rated districts to switch districts to attend a charter school. Although providing greater choice options for students is normally an important reform, this bill is problematic because only two charter schools are currently in operation in Mississippi. Combined, the two charters, both of which are located in Jackson, service 225 students.

The Mississippi Charter Schools Act of 2013, which legalized charters in the state, has been called the weakest charter school law in the nation by The Heritage Foundation. Two more charter schools are set to open in 2016, but the lack of charters and other alternative educational options leaves 99.9 percent of Mississippi’s 500,000 public school students without any other option than to continue attending poorly performing public schools.

Recent polling by Empower Mississippi has shown that charter schools are widely popular in the state. Fifty-seven percent of respondents in the survey said they believe charter schools should be offered statewide, while another 58 percent are in favor of offering education savings accounts (ESAs) to every student throughout the state. Further, 56 percent of those polled said they would choose to remove their child from a traditional public school and take advantage of an alternative school choice option, such as homeschooling or enrolling in a charter school, if the costs to do so would be covered.

Seventy-eight percent of Mississippians are in favor of school choice in general, including 73 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of independents. Among black Mississippians, 53 percent were in favor of creating charter schools throughout the entire state, and 69 percent said they were more likely to favor legislative candidates who support school choice.

Only 30 percent of Mississippi 4th graders and 22 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, while only 26 percent of 4th graders and 20 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading. Mississippi’s woeful performance on this and other tests underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Both proposals are a step in the right direction.

Too many public schools in Mississippi are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives. The goal for legislators should be to allow every Mississippi parent a choice in schools, require every Mississippi school to compete, and give every Mississippi child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information on school choice and education reform.

Ten Principles of School Choice
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 school vouchers are constitutional, grassroots activists around the country have been organizing to support the creation of school choice programs. Legislatures passed statewide programs in Colorado and Florida, and other states are expected to follow their lead. At least 35 cities have privately funded voucher programs. This booklet from The Heartland Institute provides policymakers and civic and business leaders with a highly condensed and easy-to-read guide to the debate. It presents the 10 most important principles of the school choice movement, explaining each principle in plain and precise language. It also contains an extensive bibliography for further research, including many links to documents available on the Internet, and a directory of the websites of national organizations that support school choice.

Mississippi Statewide School Choice Survey
According to the poll of 800 likely voters by Empower Mississippi, 78 percent of Mississippians support giving parents the right to use tax dollars associated with their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school that they believe would best serve their needs. The poll also found strong support for locating charter schools statewide, support for making educational scholarship accounts available to all students, and it revealed voters are more likely to support a candidate for the state’s legislature if they support school choice. In Mississippi, there is strong support for school choice across all ages, races, and political affiliations.

High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the NYC Department of Education implemented a set of large-scale and much-debated high school reforms, which included closing large, low-performing schools; opening new, small schools; and extending high school choice to students throughout the district. The school closure process was the most controversial of these efforts. Apart from the general sense school closures are painful, there was no rigorous assessment of their impact, so the Research Alliance (RA) undertook a study of the 29 low-performing high schools designated for closure in New York City between 2002 and 2008. RA found closing high schools produced meaningful benefits for future students, such as the middle schoolers who then had to choose a different high school. Many of these students ended up going to higher-performing schools than the closed ones, both in terms of the achievement and attendance of incoming students. “Post-closure” students’ outcomes improved significantly; the graduation rate for these students increased by 15 percentage points.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. These programs raise other important legal questions, which fall into four categories: the scope of students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to choose their children’s schools; state constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but AEI also says these questions create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence
This paper from the Cato Institute examines the success achieved by school choice programs across the globe. The authors find the efficiency rate (student achievement per dollar spent on education) of private education options was higher compared to the public education efficiency rate in 23 of the studies surveying foreign countries, and only three of those studies found equal or greater efficiency in public schools.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts 
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers 
Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice collected the results of all available empirical studies that use the best available scientific methods to measure how school choice vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claim vouchers do not benefit participants and that they hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows vouchers improve outcomes for participants and those who remain in public schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

Fear and Privatization
Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University and E. Vance Randall of Brigham Young University examine public attitudes toward school choice models and find much anxiety among both private and public school advocates. The authors make many common mistakes and assumptions about school choice, but they come to an interesting conclusion: School choice advocates are successfully blurring the lines between the public and private school models by instituting a wide range of different choice plans.

Study Finds School Vouchers Boost College Enrollment for African Americans by 24%
In an experimental study examining the long-term outcomes of school voucher programs, Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson found the percentage of African-American students who enrolled part-time or full-time in college by 2011 was 24 percent higher for those who had won a school voucher lottery while in elementary school and used the voucher to attend a private school.

The Parent Trigger: A Model for Transforming Education
The parent trigger is an education reform innovation passed in California in January 2010. If half the parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition requesting reform of the school, the school must either shut down, become a charter school, or undergo one of two other types of reform. Unlike most reform proposals based on empowering parents, the parent trigger originates from activists on the political left. This pedigree creates an opportunity for a successful coalition that can advance reform. Both sides of the political spectrum can support the parent trigger because it could allow parents to choose to create a new charter or voucher program in a failing district and it could empower low-income and minority parents to control the reform path their schools follow.

The Parent Trigger: Justification and Design Guidelines
This Heartland Institute Policy Brief presents the rationale for empowering parents with parent trigger legislation and offers design guidelines for parents and elected officials interested in crafting legislation for their city or state. It is a companion piece to two earlier reports on the parent trigger, also published by The Heartland Institute, and it carries the analysis considerably further by citing many of the bills that have been introduced since the original studies were written. The report also benefitted from a series of Research & Commentary collections produced by Heartland Institute Research Fellow Joy Pullmann, which are available on Heartland’s website.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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