OUR OPINION: Charter schools debate requires caution, detail

By NEMS Daily Journal

Legislators began hearings Thursday on revising Mississippi’s charter school law, and sharp divides on the issues became immediately apparent.
As discussions continue, legislators should tread carefully and avoid revisions that weaken public education generally and make charter schools receiving any kind of state support havens for an exclusive class.
The role of charter schools at its best is providing a model with proven performance for educating all children. Charter schools in some instances have been thinly veiled attempts to re-establish segregated classrooms, which is not desirable – or legal.
Charter schools can work, as in New Orleans, which reinvented its failing public school system following Hurricane Katrina’s physical destruction of the school district’s properties. Lessons and examples of better teaching and more effective learning certainly can be gleaned from those kinds of situations.
It should be noted that many of the students in the New Orleans charter schools are low-income students who performed inadequately under the former traditional methods, but have become better students in specific charter situations.
Atlanta also has many successful open-enrollment charter schools.
Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, offered prudent cautions as deliberations began. Wilson told legislators his statewide business group, which is strongly pro-public education, supports charter schools “only in those situations where there has been consistent failure.”
Of the same mind as Wilson were Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, which lobbies for education support and improvements, and state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham.
Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, offered a different view, saying charter schools shouldn’t be restricted to areas with low-performing schools. Thigpen’s approach that even high-performing schools should be subject to taxpayer-funded competition from charter schools would unnecessarily diminish limited public resources and risk harmful community divisions.
Charter schools, as Wilson said, can be one tool to help rebuild educational opportunities in areas where the existing system has failed children. In those situations, it’s obvious that fundamental rather than incremental change is necessary. Wider application of charters is a different question.
Charter schools more broadly established than under current school law may prove to be desirable, but rushing into a decision without specific, broad study of successes in other states invites legal challenges, wasted money and even, in worst-case scenarios, additional failure.
Charter schools in every scenario should be held to standards as high as the best-performing public schools; otherwise, what’s the point except to separate children for less than the best reasons?