CHARLIE MITCHELL: Charter schools are a means to an end, not magic

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – It is a feel-good week in the state capital. One topic of chirping is that charter schools may become a reality.
The details will matter.
There are 47 new members of the 174-member Legislature, meaning one in four are brand new to the lawmaking process. There is also new leadership in both lawmaking chambers and at myriad agencies. Most of these people are dedicated to the proposition that state government can make sense. That’s a good thing. As conservatives, they are eager to stop paying more for less in arenas such as K-12 education. That’s a good thing, too.
A lot of these folks – joined by more than a few progressives – are eager to order up structural changes in how Mississippi operates. When it comes to education, the buzz is “charter schools.”
The idea is not new. For decades here and in other states, charter schools have been, as the saying goes, cussed and discussed. The term also covers a lot of territory, myriad variations. Mississippi has a pilot authorization in place, but has not gone whole-hog into the concept.
There’s no telling what the Mississippi Legislature will fashion, but the core reality of a charter school is identical to secession.
Today, the state Department of Education oversees 150 or so school districts, most of which are formed using county, city or other political boundaries. Students who reside in a district are required to attend the schools existing in the district or to choose a private option, if available. It’s a take it or leave it kind of thing.
Charter schools depart from this model in that people – parents, teachers or others – may submit a plan to operate a school on their own. If the plan fits whatever criteria legislators fashion and approve during the next four months, the group is issued a “charter.” And the school is theirs.
The most significant aspect, obviously, is that along with the operational charter comes operational cash that would have gone to the existing public school system.
So there’s a fear – some say an expectation – that charter schools will result in public funding for private and essentially racially segregated schools, especially in the Mississippi Delta. In this light, charter schools are seen as a ploy – merely an attempt to allow all-white or nearly all-white academies access to the state treasury.
The reality in the Delta today and in many other parts of the state is that schools are as all-white or all-black as they were in the 1950s. Still, there’s reason to believe the U.S. Justice Department would stomp down hard on any legislation that would have the purpose or the effect of pumping money into paying for segregation.
As for their intent, proponents of charter schools insist their aim is to break down the cartels that have locked many districts into consistent underperformance.
Economic decline in rural areas – again, especially in the Delta – have resulted in some school districts becoming the largest employers in their respective counties. That has made them powerful. School officials and board members decide where to buy bus tires, who will get cafeteria jobs and such. That might not sound like a really big deal, but a $40 million budget in a district with 12,000 people and 30 percent unemployment has a tremendous impact.
So it’s no surprise that in some districts the perpetuation of power has become job No. 1. And central to perpetuation of power has been to take care of neighbors, shield a district from outside influences.
Privately, executives of foundations and other programs such as Teach for America will reveal their biggest challenge in trying to improve schools is not recalcitrant students. Their obstacles are suspicious career teachers, principals and superintendents who are comfortable with the nests they have feathered for themselves. They have the money, the power – and don’t want any outsiders messing things up.
In this context, charter schools could be a means to an end. By “seceding” from a district and forming special schools (and there are multiple templates available), the proverbial rug would be pulled out from under local, established (entrenched might be a better word) “leadership.”
It could work, with the emphasis on “could.”
There’s nothing magic about any education fix.
Even during a feel-good week, that’s an important fact to remember.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.