Expanded charter school bill slated for vote on Tuesday

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The issue during the 2012 legislative session is not whether Mississippi will expand its charter school law, but by how much.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, all Republicans, have endorsed greatly strengthening the law.
“It is time to start fostering an environment that is effective, motivating and challenging for students,” Bryant has said. “If public charter schools give a child yet another opportunity to succeed, we all will be better in Mississippi.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee is scheduled to vote on charter school legislation endorsed by its chairman, Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. That proposal would significantly strengthen the state law.
It’s not clear yet whether the House will take up a separate charter school bill or wait until later in the session and consider the Senate proposal.
“There is a role for traditional public education and always will be, but also a role for innovation,” said Tollison. “One size does not fit all. When you have a 60 percent graduation rate, you have to do something.”
Groups ranging from the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy to the Parents Campaign, a statewide public education advocacy group, have championed, or at least supported, charter schools. The Mississippi Economic Council, in its Blueprint Mississippi, released this year as a guide for the state’s progress, also calls for strengthening the charter school law, though Tollison’s bill goes further than endorsed by either MEC or the Parents Campaign.
What are they?
Charter schools can vary in how they are created and what they do, but they are all public schools supported by tax dollars. In Tollison’s proposal, local and state tax revenue would follow the student from the traditional public school to the charter school.
In general, charter schools operate outside the governance, including many of the rules and regulations, of traditional public schools. For instance, under Tollison’s proposal, charter schools could negotiate their own benefits package for teachers, and they would not be bound by the teacher salary scale that is part of state law.
In some charter schools, state teacher certification requirements are waived, students go to school longer hours and curriculum varies from other public schools.
Charters are created via a contract (a charter) by an authorizing entity. They are tasked with meeting the terms of that charter, but would not be bound by many of the state regulations governing traditional public schools.
“Whatever these rules are, why don’t we free up the (traditional) public schools from them, too?” asked Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who acknowledges a charter school bill will pass this year but doesn’t believe it will be good for public education.
“One of the most important things about public schools is everybody in town has that in common,” Bryan said. “Practically everyone sends his child to public schools, and there is broad-based support for public schools that reflect the community. By definition, charter schools will pull groups of students out of the public school and destroy that” community spirit.
There are instances where existing schools have converted to charter schools, which is currently allowed under Mississippi law. Charter school supporters said those schools traditionally do not perform as well.
There are currently more than 5,000 charter schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia. Various studies give charter schools mixed results with some excelling and others performing below traditional public schools.
“Charter schools are hardly the miracle cure,” MEC President Blake Wilson said during a public hearing earlier this year. “They are, like everything else in life, another tool we can use to approach a very tough problem.”
Under Tollison’s proposal, a new state entity would be created to approve charter schools. In high-performing and star districts – the state’s top two rankings – the local school board would have to sign off on the new charter school.
The schools would have open enrollment, and enrollment would not be confined by any district lines. If the applications for enrollment exceed capacity, there would be a lottery.
Under the legislation, the charter school’s “at-risk” enrollment, such as the number of students living in poverty, should be reflective of the area where the school is located.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, has said her group favors constraining charter schools to lower performing areas and also expressed concern that the Tollison bill would allow virtual or online schools and for-profit groups to operate the schools.
“We support charter schools, but we are saying let’s take a step at a time, and start in the area where we can make a difference in the low-performing schools,” Wilson said. “We support the bill, but would like to see it narrowed and improved. Strong oversight is critical.”
In a letter to the Senate Education Committee, MEC said, “We recommend limiting the use of charter schools to replace poor-performing schools, allowing the charter system to be used with surgical precision to carve out a cancer of non-performance – and give students in these schools where help is needed the most the best opportunity for success.”
Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, also has said strong oversight provisions should be established. He has said a key in doing that is creating an independent “authorizer” of charter schools.
While supporting much of the Tollison proposal, he said the statewide authorizing board should have more independence. Under Tollison’s bill, the state superintendent of education would have two appointments to the new panel and the commissioner of higher education would have one while the governor and lieutenant governor would have two each.
Thigpen said he wished more of the appointments were made by elected officials to provide more accountability.
MEC’s Blueprint Mississippi endorses the existing state Board of Education as the authorizer. Tollison said he wanted an authorizer “separate from the traditional public school system.”
As to restricting the charter schools to low-performing areas, Thigpen has said a parent in a high-performing district might see the need to send his child to a smaller charter school.
“We believe it is fundamentally wrong for government to tell someone he must send his child to a school not meeting his needs,” he said earlier this year.
Nation’s weakest
Mississippi’s current charter school law is ranked by the National Alliance of Charter Schools as the weakest in the nation.
The current Mississippi law is limited, saying only 12 charters can be created in the state and only in areas where the public school district is low-performing. Current law allows parents in a school district to convert the entire school to a charter, if approved by voters and by the state Department of Education.
Of Mississippi’s neighboring states, Alabama is the only one without a charter school law, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The group grades Louisiana as having the strongest law of the neighboring states.
Laws in Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana all require for charter school funding to be equal to that in traditional public schools and all have open enrollment with a lottery system if needed.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com