SID SALTER: Charter schools offer alternative to mediocrity or failure

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and legislative Republicans are taking heat this week for trying to give the charter school concept an honest try in Mississippi. But a look at the status quo in Mississippi public education suggests that the concept is an alternative worth fully empowering.
Mississippi has 1,055 individual public schools scattered across the state in 152 school districts. As of 2011, the system served 493,540 students in 447 elementary schools, 189 middle schools and 282 high schools. Some 250,329 of those students are black, 233,271 are white, 5,408 are Hispanic, 3,688 are Asian and 844 are American Indian.
The performance of the state’s public school districts and individual schools are evaluated on several factors, including student achievement on standardized tests, academic growth and, for high schools, graduation rates. Possible rankings are star, high-performing, successful, academic watch, low-performing, at risk of failing and failing.
Star and high-performing schools exceed the national average, while successful schools are performing between the state and national average. Academic watch is a warning label that the school is at an academic crossroads, and anything below academic watch reflects a performance below the state and national averages.
As of the 2011 accountability results, 67 of Mississippi’s 152 school districts or just over 44 percent were rated either academic watch, low performing, at risk of failing or failing. During that same period, some 330 of the state’s 1,055 individual schools (over 31 percent) were rated “academic watch” or worse.
The flip side of that coin is that over half the state’s school districts are rated “successful” or better and that two-thirds of the state’s individual schools earned that rating as well. But tens of thousands of Mississippi students are, in fact, trapped in schools, in school districts, and in entire counties, where the opportunity to attend a school rated “successful” or better is simply geographically impossible.
Coahoma County and Clarksdale represents a prime example of the problem.
In Coahoma County, there are the Coahoma County Schools, the Clarksdale Public Schools, and Coahoma County Agricultural High School. Those districts represent 15 individual public schools in the county. Of those 15 schools, 14 are rated “low performing” and only little Sherard Elementary breaks the cycle with a rating of “high performing.”
Yet just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Ark., there is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Delta Public Schools – one of the nation’s growing numbers of highly successful public-funded charter schools. The KIPP School Class of 2010, the school’s first graduating class, saw 100 percent of its students graduate and 100 percent win acceptance to colleges like Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Naval Academy.
The demographics of the KIPP School mirror those in Coahoma County. Over 95 percent of the KIPP students are African American, over 90 percent qualify for free or reduced school meals and the majority of students come from single-parent homes.
As Reeves has suggested, charter schools are no panacea and don’t relieve taxpayers of the responsibility to support traditional public schools. But charter schools are an important tool in the toolbox in a state where 44 percent of the state’s school districts are rated on “academic watch” or worse.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.