JAMES HULL: Charter schools could open door to resegregation

By James Hull

Congratulations to all our Northeast Mississippi districts and schools that recently received high grades in the state’s new ranking system, several of them even being graded as “A” schools, making them among the highest achieving schools in Mississippi.
This positive news comes despite the continuing problems of school discipline, under-funding and middle-class flight beyond the corporate limits of larger municipalities, leaving many of our schools facing the serious challenges of having to choose between arts and algebra, and tackling shifting – oftentimes disproportionately so – student populations racially, ethnically, culturally and socioeconomically. But, obviously our schools are continuing to fight the good fight and, in most cases, win.
For progressives like me, the news of high performing schools is particularly pleasing on two fronts. One: because of, the other: in spite of:
The news is rewarding and refreshing because of efforts by state educators and education administrators to demonstrate that things are not as bad and depressing and discouraging as many would have us believe.
The news is also welcome despite continuing efforts to undermine the open public school model by promoting the more closed model of charter schools. Make no mistake about it, when the Legislature convenes in January, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ top priority is to get a charter schools bill passed, or, pass some form of a school voucher system. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison already is on record as saying “public charter schools are not a risky new concept.” After all, charter school proponents argue, charter schools have been around since the 1960’s, and there are more than 4,000 successful charter schools operating across the country. Then why are those, like me, who call ourselves “progressives” fundamentally opposed to charter schools in Mississippi? Well, it’s not because of the concept, it’s because of the prospect of how the concept will be implemented. In short, people like me believe charter schools in Mississippi will lead to more exclusiveness and less diversity in the student populations and teacher corps. In fact, we believe the notion of charter schools is little more than a ruse to find a way to privatize public education dollars, despite well-intentioned efforts otherwise.
The theory among some progressives and liberals is that when and if a school is publicly chartered in Mississippi, the effort will be led by those of affluence, influence and means and the enrollment criteria will conveniently exclude applicants and the parents of applicants who are not affluent, will have little or no influence on the process and will have no means to influence the charter school’s development.
We fear – at least I do – that this crescendo of calls for charter schools conveniently coincides with the struggle of private academies. Back in the 1970’s during public school integration, many Mississippi parents chose not to send their children to public schools to demonstrate their vehement opposition to integration. They chose, instead, to form private academies which, in effect, catered to their notions of racial segregation. Now many of those families – touting fourth generation private academy graduates – find themselves less and less able financially to support their mentalities of exclusion, segregation and homogeny. But through the advent of public charter schools they could back-door in private academies at the expense of public taxpayers.
Call my fears irrational and paranoid, if you like. I believe they are justified.
The recent news of our state schools being on the upswing serves to counter the notion that there is a compelling need for charter schools.
Mississippi public schools need to find ways to further inclusion, not foster exclusion. Further diversity, not foster division.
James Hull is an award-wining journalist and a political consultant. You may contact him at hullmultimediams@aol.com.