The evidence, however, is mixed.
First, it is important to understand that charter schools are public schools, funded with tax dollars. They operate pursuant to a legal agreement (charter) between an authorizing agency (state board of education, local education board, university, etc.) and a sponsor. The charter contains details of the arrangement such as composition of the governing body of the school, qualifications of teachers and administrators, budget, physical facilities and division of authority and responsibility between the governing board and the authorizing agency. Because these schools typically accept federal tax dollars, they are subject to federal laws. The charter also specifies which state laws do not apply to the charter schools and which ones do. Charters may be organized around a theme – music, art, etc. – or present a general education. They may be geared toward college prep or traditional trades.They usually control their own calendars, curricula and hours of operation. In some cases management of the school is contracted out to a professional organization. The one characteristic all charters share is freedom from some of the government oversight borne by other schools.
There are two general categories of charters – conversion schools and start-up schools. Conversion schools are created when an existing public school becomes a charter school. Mississippi law currently permits schools that are in the three lowest categories of performance for three consecutive years to convert to charter. The conversion process is initiated by a vote of parents of kids in the school – a so-called “trigger school” process. Mississippi, Florida, Texas and California have these laws. The movement is growing. Conversion schools do not cost additional state or local dollars because students are already served.
Start-up schools are created when a sponsoring organization organizes a new school under a charter. Because start-up charters are new schools, they typically require additional facilities and personnel. As a result, they divert funds from existing public schools or result in additional costs. For this reason, in recent years funding has become a major issue in Mississippi’s debate over charter schools.
Sometimes the results have been positive; sometimes not so good. For example, a 2009 study by Stanford University reported that “…in the aggregate, students in charter schools [are] not fairing as well as students in traditional public schools.” (New Stanford Report Finds Serious Quality Challenge in National Charter School Sector, 2009) As always, the success or failure of individual schools depends upon the adults who are in charge.
Charter schools are an education tool Mississippi should explore. We should give our current parent trigger law time to work, and we should look for opportunities for start-up charters. However, the lesson from the experiences of other states is that charters are not a silver bullet and we should continue to support all efforts to fund and improve our existing public schools.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, is a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and former chairman of the Education Committee.