Lee County offers charter debate fodder

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Lee County may be the prototype of a school district that lies at the heart of Mississippi’s charter school debate.
Last legislative session, one of the biggest sticking points in the battle over such schools was whether they would be allowed in Successful, or “C,” school districts.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves argued they were needed in such districts because many of them still had bad schools. It was a point he reiterated last Tuesday when he and other lawmakers visited a charter school in Arkansas to build support for a law that would allow more of them in Mississippi.
Charter schools are publicly funded but free from many regulations that guide traditional schools.
“I personally support allowing charter schools everywhere in our state,” Reeves said. “…What you find in Mississippi is 45,000 kids in B and C districts trapped in failing schools.”
Lee County is one of those districts with schools spread throughout the rankings. The district was given a “C” grade this fall with two “A” schools, two “B” schools, two “C” schools, four “D” schools and one “F.”
Saltillo and Mooreville high schools each had an “A,” while Verona Elementary School had an “F.” Those grades were based on student results on state tests.
Some have argued that if charters are allowed in such districts, they should be restricted to the zone of the failing school. Reeves was asked on Tuesday if, in the case of Lee County, a law should allow a charter in Verona rather than in Saltillo.
“That is not a decision that needs to be made by the Legislature or the lieutenant governor,” Reeves said. “It needs to be made by parents, not by someone in Jackson telling you what to do.”
Reeves noted that the bill that passed the Senate last year did not allow charter schools to spend state funds on facilities, a provision he said is similar to Arkansas’ law.
“If we had a bill that said you could operate in a school zone, what if you could not find a location in that zone?” he said.
“In the Lee County example, it is more likely to be near Verona than near Saltillo because that is where parents will want it. They need to be able go wherever the facilities are available.”
Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents Campaign, disagrees. Her organization advocates for a law that allows charters only in failing school zones.
“If we are serious about using charter schools to improve student achievement, we need to look at what the research says about where these charter schools are most successful and with whom they are most successful,” she said. “Research is pretty clear charter schools are most successful dealing with children who are low performing and dealing with low-performing schools, and they are less successful when competing with good schools.”
Chris Kieffer 12/7/12 optional trim
State Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, also made the trip to Arkansas last week. Collins, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said she could envision charter schools in Lee County.
“What I could see is a public charter school be allowed anywhere parents see a need for it and want it,” she said. “If they want it there and see the need, they should be allowed.
“…I think we have great schools in Lee County, for the most part. Can we do better? Absolutely.”

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com