By NEMS Daily Journal
Passage of a new law that would open up much of the state to creation of charter schools in Mississippi seemed inevitable as the 2012 legislative session began. It hasn’t turned out that way.
A bill passed the Senate but got bogged down in the House Education Committee. When the committee finally took action after a week’s delay, opponents prevailed by a single vote.
Now there’s talk of grafting the Senate charter bill on to related legislation to give its supporters another shot. In the meantime, emotions run high.
Here’s the essential truth about charter schools: They’re not the great elixir for what ails public schools, as some proponents seem to think, but neither are they the grave threat to public education many opponents believe.
The inability so far to craft a reasonable compromise is one more reflection of the polarized politics we operate under in Jackson as well as Washington. Mistrust, more than anything else, is driving the opposition.
Some people who have fought to improve public schools for all Mississippi children see charter advocates as having an agenda of weakening the public system and strengthening private schools, a decades-old division in Mississippi born when many whites fled integration to hastily created “segregation academies.” Charter proponents, for their part, see opponents as protecting the status quo in a system that hasn’t served all Mississippi’s children well.
It’s time for both sides to acknowledge the perspective of the other and to find a middle ground that can allow charters to operate where they’re needed most.
Proponents of a broad charter law need to be willing to start more slowly than they’d like. Opponents need to back off their resistance to any change based on fear of what might happen next.
Let the controlled experimentation begin. Watch objectively, not through ideological lenses, and gauge what happens. Tweak the law to make it more beneficial to school children not otherwise getting what they need – with that the only criterion for success.
Charter schools operate in 41 states. Mississippi is hardly blazing a trail on this issue. While in Mississippi it’s Republicans who are the primary proponents, it’s not a strictly partisan issue nationwide. Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are in league with President Barack Obama and his Department of Education in touting the benefits of charters.
No charter law should allow private schools to convert to charters, nor does the state ever need to provide vouchers or tax breaks for private schools. But well-considered opportunities for innovation – particularly for those students and communities poorly served by the existing structures – could ultimately strengthen, not undermine, all public schools.