By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Don’t expect to see a charter school on every street corner if the bill that passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday becomes law in its current form.
The bill would require those applying to operate a charter school to pass a thorough application process. They would need to show their record of success and to outline their plans for improving student achievement.
“Some people have expressed concerns there will be 150 new charter schools in a year,” said Lt. Governor Tate Reeves during an editorial board meeting at the Daily Journal on Tuesday. “That won’t happen.”
Reeves said that he expects probably five to 10 new charter schools to open across the state over the next two to three years.
“It may be slightly more or less,” he said.
Reeves traveled to Tupelo with state Sens. Gray Tollison and Nancy Collins on Tuesday after the bill was approved by the committee. Tollison is the chair of that committee, and Collins is vice chair. They are the co-authors of the proposed legislation, which is expected to go before the full Senate this week.
Reeves and the two senators held a press conference at the Community Development Foundation Tuesday afternoon and also met with the Daily Journal’s editorial board.
“My view is that job creation must be our number one priority in Mississippi,” Reeves said during the press conference that was attended by about 80 citizens, including school and city leaders. “I believe that intrinsic in our job creation efforts, we must improve the educational attainment of our citizens.”
Charter schools, he said, are not a panacea but are a tool for ensuring that all students are served by school systems.
A charter school is one that receives public money but is free of many state laws and regulations. The school, which does not charge tuition, operates under a charter that specifies its objective and academic goals. Forty states, plus the District of Columbia currently allow charter schools.
Under Mississippi’s proposed law, funding would follow the students, meaning that charter schools would receive money from local, state and federal sources on a per-pupil allocation.
“This is a difficult issue because change is hard and moving forward is hard, but our children are worth it,” Collins said.
One key to the new bill, Tollison said, is that it only allows one entity to authorize new charter schools. That entity will be a seven-person board with appointments made by the governor, lieutenant governor, state superintendent of education and head of the university system.
The board will consider applications for charters and determine whether or not to grant five-year contracts. It will also determine whether those contracts are renewed after five years. It can revoke charters if schools do not meet the terms of their contracts.
Schools applying for charters would need to provide detailed information on such things as evidence of need and community support for the proposed charter school, background information that includes a record of success in raising student achievement and a description of the school’s instructional design. Applicants would also need to hold a public meeting in the local community.
Initially, Tollison said, he expects charters to target grades five through eight. Those were the grades first targeted by KIPP charter schools in the Arkansas Delta, and Tollison cited those schools as a successful model for what Mississippi may see.
Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said after Tuesday’s press conference that traditional public schools should also be given the flexibility that the new law will afford to charter schools.
“If you remove the things that hold public schools back, we can eliminate the need for charter schools in two years,” he said.
Amory Superintendent Gearl Loden had similar sentiments.
“I believe that whatever flexibility charter schools have must also be available to public schools, if they choose to have it,” he said. “It needs to be a local decision.”
Tollison countered that the law does give districts such flexibility, noting that school boards can vote to convert some of their schools – or even their entire district – to a charter.
The charter schools will still be required to comply with federal laws but they will be free from many state regulations. For instance, only 50 percent of teachers will be required to have state certification, and districts will be able to hire and fire teachers at will.
“They are able to use different teaching methods and to be innovative in how they teach students,” Tollison said.
Those charters will still be held accountable. Students must take the same state standardized tests as public school students, and the schools will be required to make public annual reports on how well they are meeting the terms of their contract.
The bill also requires them to have a diverse group of students. One of the bill’s stated goals is to close achievement gaps between students of various subgroups and it requires charter schools to report academic data of all of their subgroups.
Also, the demographics of a charter school must closely resemble those of the corresponding grade levels in the local school district, unless the charter has a certain stated mission, such as to serve students of one gender or at-risk students.