Legislators eye revisions to state's charter schools law

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Whether charter schools can locate anywhere or just be created in areas where the traditional public school is failing could be the crux of the argument this session as the Mississippi Legislature debates whether to expand the state’s restrictive charter school law.
During a joint hearing of the House and Senate Education committees Thursday, legislators heard recommendations that charter schools be allowed only as an alternative to a failing public school.
Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, told legislators his business group supports charter schools “only in those situations where there has been consistent failure.” Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, an education advocacy group, and state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham made similar comments.
On the other hand, Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said people in any area of the state should be able to start a charter school.
“I should have the opportunity to send my child to a smaller setting,” Thigpen told legislators. “We believe it is fundamentally wrong for government to tell someone he must send his child to a school not meeting his needs.”
Charter schools can take many different shapes, but in general they receive public funds but operate outside some of the regulations of traditional public schools.
The current state law is limited, saying only 12 can be created in the state in areas where the public school district is low-performing. Current law allows parents in the school district to convert an existing school to a charter, if approved by voters and the state Board of Education.
Gov. Phil Bryant has voiced support for a broader charter school law.
Other issues include what entity would authorize charter schools. Burnham and Loome said it should be the state Board of Education. Thigpen said independent entities created for the sole purpose of authorizing charter schools have worked best in other states.
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he believes local school boards should have a role.
Most agreed that charter schools should be held to the same standards as other public schools, and should be open to all students. Burnham said charter schools should not have the option to send problem students back to the traditional public school.
Wilson said the research on charter schools is mixed.
“Charter schools are hardly the miracle cure,” he said. “They are, like everything else in life, another tool we can use to approach a very tough problem.”
House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said charter schools should be an option anywhere, including high-performing districts, “but I won’t die in the ditch on that one particular issue.”
Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantchie, said, “It could be a tool we need to look at. I am not settled on any one thing. We probably need to look at that and vouchers, too.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com