Charter debate: Lifeline or community divider?

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – To some, a charter school is a lifeline for students in failing traditional public schools. To others, it’s an elitist effort that siphons funding and loyalty from already struggling schools.
The Mississippi Legislature is debating those positions in considering bills that would provide for charter schools in lower-performing school districts.
State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, and Mississippi First executive director Rachel Canter debated the issue Friday at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.
“There is no limit of opinions when it comes to education in Mississippi, and you can multiply that by 100 or 200 regarding charter schools,” said Overby Fellow Bill Rose, who moderated the event.
“Charter schools in other parts of the country have shown us … that we can close the achievement gap if we structure our schools in such a way to provide our students the resources they need,” Canter, who taught in Greenville before working with Chicago schools and the Mississippi Governor’s Office.
Bryan argued that charter schools would threaten community cohesiveness.
“There aren’t that many things we have in common anymore,” said Bryan, a primary author of the 1997 Mississippi Adequate Education Program legislation. “We all need to come together as a community. Public schools do that for us.”
He also argued that charter school supporters haven’t made their case.
“It’s almost as though the words ‘charter school’ are a talisman,” Bryan said. “I keep asking, ‘What makes a charter school better?’ and I can’t get an answer.”
Canter said charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools, from longer school days and different curricula to higher teacher pay and frequent testing. She said some ideas developed in charter schools are now being tried in traditional public schools.
“Charter schools are not magic,” Canter acknowledged before challenging that they are a proven way to improve educational outcomes for many students.
“We can sit here and dream about what we should do better, or we can do it,” she said.
Bryan asserted that charter schools tend to be populated by students who already have educational and familial advantages, leaving traditional schools to educate the more challenging students. He added that he wants to see the charter concept implemented on a broad population.
“I keep asking why none of the charter school operators will take on an entire district,” he said. “I can’t get an answer.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com.