School chiefs raise charter concerns

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

When the Legislature convened in January, it seemed a certainty that it would greatly expand the ability for charter schools to operate in Mississippi.
That now seems much more in doubt, at least in part because of the influence of local superintendents of education.
Those leaders have said that they support charters, which are public schools that are given greater flexibility in exchange for higher standards. However, new legislation must be carefully crafted to avoid consequences they say would significantly harm the existing public school system.
“I think we need charter school legislation, but not at the expense of destroying the good schools,” said Tishomingo County Superintendent Malcolm Kuykendall.
Last week, the House Education Committee rejected, on a 16-15 vote, a Senate-passed charter school bill. The House did not pass its own bill. Several superintendents were present for that vote and have been throughout the session.
Now, the last effort to expand the law in the current session appears to be a Senate plan to insert charter school language into another bill that passed the House. That could happen this week.
Current state law only allows school districts that have been underperforming for several years to convert schools into charters.
Superintendents argue that charter schools could help low-performing districts but could also drain money and resources from districts that are doing well.
Others have been critical of the superintendents’ influence. Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said in a press release after last week’s House vote that “the education establishment has built a Berlin Wall around the current system.”
Grant Sowell of the Tupelo Tea Party recently criticized Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks for sending a letter home with each of the district’s 7,200 students about charter schools. Sowell said that the letter, which noted how new legislation could affect the district, was an inappropriate use of resources. Weeks, who said he is not opposed to charter schools, said the letters cost a total of about $72 to print, and he felt it was important to inform parents.
Weeks said his concerns were where such schools would be located and whether virtual charters would be allowed. Some of the changes he has seen in the legislation have made it a better bill, he said.
DeSoto County Schools Superintendent Milton Kuykendall, brother of the Tishomingo County superintendent, also argues that superintendents have the right to weigh in on the issue.
“The last time I checked, this is America, and I think superintendents are allowed to give their input on things that affect their district,” he said. “I think we should be allowed to vote and endorse and support anyone we want without persecution.”
Like his brother, Milton Kuykendall also said that most superintendents do not oppose charter schools but are interested in the scope of a new law.
Among the biggest issues debated is where charter schools can locate. Many superintendents, including Ronnie Hill of Baldwyn and Michael Nanney of Itawamba County, have said they should not be allowed in school districts ranked at least Successful by the state.
“It may not be something that affects us initially, but we have to be very careful of what kind of legislation gets passed because it could affect us down the road,” Nanney said.
Superintendents have also said that the state Board of Education should authorize the charter schools, rather than a new agency the Senate bill would have created.
“The experience of state board members and their understanding of how all parts go together would enable them to make better decisions for approving charter schools that would be more successful,” said state board member Claude Hartley of Tupelo.
Thigpen disagreed, saying it wouldn’t make sense to “have the board that is in charge of the current system also be over alternatives to that system.”
Thigpen said he could support legislation that would give local school boards authority to reject charter schools in districts ranked Successful or better. Ideally, though, he would like to see them everywhere in the state.
“There are children even in good schools that are not doing well and could benefit from the options that charter schools provide,” he said. “The focus needs to be on the children who could benefit and not on the schools and districts.”
New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett said that he believes there is a solution that would satisfy both sides. He said that many of the snags have been caused by mistrust of how the final bill would look.
“I wish the governor and the leadership in the Legislature would meet with Dr. (Tom) Burnham (the state superintendent) and the leadership at the Mississippi Department of Education,” he said. “I believe if they would, they could craft a bill that would meet the needs of those areas that need reform without harming those areas that are thriving.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com