LLOYD GRAY: Charter anxiety

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s now widely acknowledged in Mississippi that strong public schools are essential to a healthy community. It wasn’t always that way.
Mississippi historically undervalued education, a big reason for the state’s long-entrenched poverty. Many with economic power in Mississippi saw widespread education – particularly for blacks, but for poor whites as well – as a threat to a system built on cheap labor. As early 20th century Gov. James K. Vardaman put it, education just ruins a good field hand.
The racially segregated school systems we had until the 1970s were inherently unequal, and inequities persisted between relatively wealthy and poor school districts as well.
These realities were why support for better public schools for everyone became a litmus test for commitment to a brighter future for Mississippi. The committed fought to preserve the very idea of public schools in the 1960s when the governor and legislators were threatening to close them rather than integrate, then again when whites in many areas fled integration for hastily erected private schools.
Public schools symbolized more than just education in Mississippi. They carried hopes for a more literate, economically successful, peacefully integrated society to emerge from a long legacy of illiteracy, poverty and discrimination.
This is why many who support public schools – not just the public education establishment, but concerned citizens as well – worry about the sudden enthusiasm for charter schools. Preservation of public education in Mississippi, and providing the support and improvements necessary to give the state’s children a fighting chance, has not been an easy battle, and much of white Mississippi is still split between public and private schools. Public school supporters tend to wonder: Are charter schools just private schools in disguise, another way to undermine the fragile progress that has been made in getting communities to value their public schools?
That attitude is understandable, but it’s also in need of reassessment. It’s clear that in some places in Mississippi, things are so bad in the public schools that only a major shakeup in the system will make a difference. And it’s also clear that the racial achievement gap in Mississippi is so widespread that minority students stand to benefit as much or more than white kids from the innovative methods and new ways of doing things that good charter schools can bring.
Mississippi’s school performance improvements have been incremental, and the impatience with slow progress is growing. In spite of the fact that schools haven’t gotten the money they’re supposed to under current law, public school advocates must show commitment to more than just adequate funding.
Outright opposition to charter schools might once have been understandable, but not now. Public school supporters must engage in the debate to craft a new charter school law to ensure that it enhances opportunities for all and doesn’t diminish the best school systems.
A charter school law with reasonable safeguards can be part of the mix for that brighter future for all Mississippi children that the proponents of public schools have for so long envisioned.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com