CLAIBORNE BARKSDALE: Two elements of concern in charter schools bill

By Claiborne Barksdale

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee will take up Senate Bill 2401 that, if passed, will expand significantly charter schools in the state. Two provisions should be of extreme concern to all those who support public education in the state.
First, the bill would allow charter schools everywhere. Those districts rated “successful” or below could have charters authorized, and those districts rated “high-performing” or “star” could have charters if a majority of the local school board so opted.
The simplistic justification offered for allowing charters everywhere as opposed to limiting them to low-performing districts is that “everyone should have a choice.” While this sounds like a good thing, however, it ignores the real rationale for charters, which is that they should exist to give students and parents a choice when the student is trapped in a chronically underperforming school. In other words, if the district is providing a good education to its students, as defined by the state, then charters are superfluous and damaging, and would drain state and local tax dollars – and human capital – from the existing school system.
Mississippi has 232 schools that have been rated below “successful” for the two most recent years. Let’s allow charters to compete with those schools, let’s focus the resources to help those students, let’s not weaken schools that are successful.
A second provision that is extremely worrisome is that which would allow “virtual charter schools.” Virtual schools allow students to work entirely online. Again, the concept sounds simple, but the fact is that virtual schools have been shown to be ineffective over and over again.
An April 2011 Stanford University study found that “cyber charter students have significantly smaller gains in reading and math than those of their traditional public school peers.” Student-“teacher” ratios sometimes reach 250-1, allowing no realistic time for “teaching.” The CEO of one of the nation’s largest virtual school businesses – K12 Inc, a for-profit corporation publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange– was paid $5 million last year.
So don’t get confused – these aren’t educational entities – they are big businesses, their eyes are squarely on the bottom line, and they are lobbying very hard in Jackson to get their foot in the door. Charter schools consisting entirely of online coursework should be explicitly prohibited under the law.
The combination of these two provisions – charters everywhere and virtuals – pose a real threat to the many good schools that exist in Mississippi. As S.B. 2401 is written, students from every school in the state – public, private and homeschooled – star, high-performing and on down – could enroll in a virtual school. All local funding would flow to the virtual school, draining the public school funds. The virtual school would send a bill to the local taxing authority and the bill would have to be paid.
A state educational leader who had experience with “virtuals” in another state told me that it is almost impossible to hold the “virtuals” accountable. They comprise a great business model, but a lousy educational model. Students will be hurt, good school districts will be plundered.
Some might read opposition to these provisions as yet another tired defense of the public schools which too often fail to do their jobs. This is no such defense. It is a plea to target the promise that effective charters provide to those students who need those resources where they will have the greatest impact.
Therefore, I support the charter concept of allowing students in chronically underperforming schools the option of attending a charter. The charter school should be a “brick-and-mortar” school, not a “virtual” school, and it should have a relevant track record of success working in challenging districts. Accountability should be high and oversight effective.
All are frustrated by the lack of strong public schools around the state. This is a complicated issue, fraught with potential for mischief. We owe it to our children to be very thoughtful about how we address this issue. S.B. 2401 has some good aspects that deserve support; these two provisions, however, need to be amended.
Claiborne Barksdale is CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute in Oxford. Contact him at barksdac@msreads.org.