Debate centers on where charter schools can go

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Unless the Tupelo and Lee County school district rankings improve, charter schools would be able to locate in both by the summer of 2015 without any input from the local school boards under legislation that is pending before the Mississippi House.
Many other school districts in Northeast Mississippi, including Baldwyn, Alcorn County, Nettleton and Houston would be in the same boat.
Legislation reviving charter schools passed the Mississippi Senate last week and is expected to be taken up in the House before an April 26 deadline.
As of now, the vote in the House is expected to be close, though indications are that the House Republican leadership is putting pressure on members to approve the charter school legislation as it passed the Senate.
In general, charter schools operate outside the governance, including many of the rules and regulations, of traditional public schools. For instance, under the legislation pending before the House, only 50 percent of charter school teachers must be certified instructors.
Charter schools are created via a contract (a charter) by an authorizing entity. They are tasked with meeting the terms of that charter. They receive public funds, but are not answerable to local school boards.
One of the primary issues surrounding the charter school debate is where they can locate. Under the bill that passed the Senate, a state authorizing board would be enacted to approve the creation of charter schools.
But local boards in districts accredited as Star and High Performing under state Board of Education guidelines would have veto authority over charter schools locating within their boundaries. Districts deemed to be Successful would have veto authority until July 2015.
Some legislators believe charter schools should be allowed anywhere without the approval of the local school boards. Others believe they should be confined to areas where the traditional public schools have consistently failed. Still, others don’t support charter schools under any circumstances.
Currently, a coalition of those wanting to limit charter schools to poor-performing districts and those who oppose all charter schools are putting the bill in jeopardy in the House even though it has the support of the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who favors a more expansive charter school law, says the Senate proposal gives successful districts “four academic years, including this one” to improve so that their school boards would have veto authority. Under the bill that passed the Senate, the state authorizing board would not be created until September, so it appears that under the best-case scenario a charter school could not go into operation until the 2013-14 school year in poor-performing districts or in Successful and above districts where the local boards approved the charter school.
“It’s time to change the status quo and give parents a choice in their children’s education,” Reeves said. “For far too long, we have had students trapped in failing districts with no options for a better education. This legislation can change that.”
Reeves points out that many of the individual schools in successful school districts are not succeeding.
The Parents Campaign, a public education advocacy group, has supported basing the location of charter schools not on the success or failure of the school district, but of the individual school.
The Parents Campaign said charter schools should “provide an alternative for students who reside in the attendance zones of schools that for the two most recent consecutive years have been rated unsuccessful.”
In a public hearing earlier this year, Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, said, “We need to focus our charter schools where they are needed – in consistently under-performing schools. We will not improve Mississippi’s student achievement by going into areas where public schools are already doing a good job.”
For a variety of reasons, there has been no effort to confine charter school locations by school zone instead of by district. Because of that, the Parents Campaign has generally supported confining the charter schools to poor-performing districts and giving Successful districts veto authority.
Districts in Northeast Mississippi that are less than Successful based on the latest state Board of Education reports are Aberdeen, Benton County, Houston, Marshall County, Okolona, Oktibbeha County, Prentiss County, Tupelo and West Point. The Successful districts where under pending legislation a charter school could be located in July 2015 without input from the local school board are Alcorn, Baldwyn, Calhoun County, Chickasaw County, Holly Springs, Lafayette County, Lee County, Nettleton, North Tippah, South Tippah and Starkville.
Loome said the Parents Campaign is also concerned with the Senate proposal because the language would allow unproven groups to operate charter schools.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com