JACKSON – Incoming state Superintendent Tom Burnham has weighed in on two of the biggest education issues that will face the Mississippi Legislature during the 2010 session.
Burnham, who will take over for his second stint as superintendent in January, said that perhaps the Mississippi Board of Education should be able to consolidate districts that the state takes over and should be able to establish charter schools in those districts.
Mississippi law gives the state board authority to take over chronically low-performing districts.
The issue of school district consolidation was brought to the forefront by Gov. Haley Barbour, who recommended in November reducing the number of districts from 152 to 100 as a cost-savings measure in his budget proposal.
But a legislatively created task force on low-performing school districts was studying the idea before Barbour made his recommendation.
The task force also has been studying charter schools. Mississippi’s charter school law, which was labeled as weak by many charter school supporters, expired two years ago.
While charter schools can be defined in different ways, they are generally schools supported with public funds that have a specific mission, such as focusing on the sciences. They also have a different governing structure and do not have to adhere to all state mandates.
Burnham’s suggestion to allow the state Board of Education to consolidate low-performing districts and even to create charter schools came during a recent meeting of the low-performing schools task force.
Burnham said he is making the recommendation because “in my mind you don’t give it (the school system) back to the people who allowed it to fail to begin with.”
With consolidation or charter schools, he said, “You are creating a new governing structure.”
Burnham said that when he was superintendent in the 1990s, the state took over a failing North Panola School District and improved it, but now it is failing again.
“What happened in North Panola is that we have a new board and a new superintendent, but we need to engage the community,” Burnham said. “We had them engaged to a certain extent when we left, but now they are disengaged.”
Under Burnham’s concept, the state board would not be able to consolidate a low-performing district with another district unless the neighboring district agreed to the merger.
Barbour has formed a commission to study school district consolidation. The commission is supposed to make a recommendation by April 1.
The governor hopes the Legislature will give the state Board of Education the authority to act upon that recommendation.
“You have to look at one district at a time in terms of consolidation,” said Board of Education member Claude Hartley of Tupelo. “I don’t think you can just pick a random number and say we need that many districts. But I am sure that we have some districts that would benefit from consolidation.”
As for charter schools, Burnham said he wants to develop them “within the public school framework. We have to figure out how to do that.”
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal