LLOYD GRAY: Flexibility on charter bill?

By Lloyd Gray

That passage of charter school legislation in 2013 is the No. 1 priority of legislative leaders in both the Senate and House has been clear for a while.
Now make that crystal clear.
House Speaker Philip Gunn recently removed an anti-charter school member from the Education Committee and replaced her with a charter advocate. A charter school bill lost by one vote in the committee in the 2012 session.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison of Oxford and Vice Chair Nancy Collins of Tupelo, will visit the KIPP charter school in Helena, Ark., on Tuesday, accompanied by media. The school has had some impressive successes in a poor community with otherwise struggling public schools and has become the poster child for charter school supporters.
Then later this month, House and Senate education committees will meet jointly for a full day devoted to charter school legislation.
The fervor to get something passed and link Mississippi with the 41 other states allowing charter schools has gotten Gunn, at least, to sounding like a man who is open to compromise. The charter bill bogged down in the House committee this year with opposition from some Republican lawmakers who didn’t want charters to disrupt the well-functioning schools in their counties.
In a recent interview with the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison, Gunn doesn’t commit to legislation that would allow charters in only D and F-rated school districts, but he seems open to it. A major sticking point has been whether local school boards in C-rated districts – “successful” under the old parlance – ought to have veto power over charters.
The House speaker also seems flexible on whether the state Board of Education or a newly created body should be the authorizing agency for charter schools. Charter proponents have argued that the existing state board would be too protective of the status quo.
Gunn, Reeves, Tollison and others are also more vocal these days in attempting to assure skeptics that the charter school bill won’t allow public funds to go to religiously based or nonsectarian private schools.
When you get down to it, this is the biggest fear of charter school opponents – that they are somehow a ruse to funnel public money to private schools or to resegregate public schools. In a state where school integration was fiercely resisted, and where private schools sprang up for the sole purpose of maintaining segregation, it’s not an irrational concern.
The safeguards in the bill against such uses of public funds for charter schools will be critical. So, too, will protections against fly-by-night operations with no record of success.
Charter schools are hardly uniformly successful. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers last week called on states to crack down on poor-performing charters. Some 900 to 1,300 charter schools across the country are in the bottom 15 percent of their state academic rankings, NACSA reported.
So just because it’s a charter school doesn’t guarantee it will be a good or even mediocre school. Mississippi’s law has to ensure that organizations with poor records or no records don’t get a foothold in the state.
Charter schools aren’t the be-all and end-all of educational improvement. But if done right, they can be one element that improves opportunities for children trapped in low-performing schools.
If Mississippi’s charter school advocates can craft a bill that recognizes the risks as well as the potential rewards of charter schools, and that hears the concerns of people who aren’t simply knee-jerk protectors of the status quo, they’ll stand a much better chance of achieving their goal.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.