OUR OPINION: Charter bill contains some reassurances

By NEMS Daily Journal

This space Wednesday was devoted to a critique of procedure – the closed meeting in which the Senate Education Committee first discussed the charter school bill. Today, with the full Senate having passed it, some comments on the substance of the bill.
The best thing the committee did before it sent the bill to the floor was to eliminate the provision allowing for virtual charter schools. These online schools are run solely for profit and have no business substituting for the real thing.
The committee could have improved the bill by limiting it to attendance zones of low-performing – D and F – schools, but unfortunately it left charters open to any district, allowing a veto by local school boards only in A and B districts.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has argued credibly that C districts can have D or F schools in them, and therefore charters shouldn’t need school board approval in such districts. But the better course would be to allow charters only in the portion of the district where students are assigned to attend the low-performing schools. Otherwise, charters can be set up to compete against schools already doing well, which is not where their focus should be.
We agree with Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, the Education Committee chairman, that the biggest value of charters can be to offer some help – on whatever modest a scale – in closing the racial and economic achievement gap, where research shows they are strongest.
But there are other improvements over the 2012 legislation that eventually died in the House. Chief among them is the explicit prohibition against private school conversions to charters or new charters created by private school groups. That’s a fear often heard from opponents.
There are also tougher requirements on charter groups to demonstrate community support and serve a proportion of of low-income, low-performing, special education and limited English-speaking students at at least 80 percent of the level in the school district where they locate. This speaks to the concern that charters will “cherry pick” the highest-performing students to distort their actual effectiveness.
These are reassuring provisions, but there is more work to be done on this bill when it reaches the House to ensure that it is a reasonable, systematic approach to adding the “tool in the toolbox” charter proponents see as valuable in overall school improvement.