December 30, 2011 12:11:00 PM
By JEFF AMY
JACKSON -- Republican control of Mississippi government could bring a new charter school law, and supporters are working on proposals.
Schools that are chartered get more operational freedom in exchange for agreeing to meet certain goals. Under current Mississippi law, only schools with subpar ratings for three consecutive years can be chartered, and only at parents' request. No school in the state has been chartered under those rules.
Opponents point to studies that show charter schools are no better than regular schools.
Supporters want a more permissive law. But lawmakers will have to decide whether only the state will grant charters or whether others will also be able to create such schools. Also to be decided when the Legislature convenes next week: whether to only convert failing schools or allow new charter schools to be founded.
For many of the people most involved in the debate over charter schools, the question is not whether Mississippi will get a new charter school law, but what the law will look like.
The assumption is that Republicans, having gained control of both houses of the Legislature and holding the governor's office, will loosen the state's current law, which supporters of nontraditional schools deride for its restrictions.
"We think the likelihood of a charter bill passing the House and Senate is very good, and we'd like to have a good charter school bill," said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, which lobbies on education issues.
Who gets to authorize charter schools could be a point of contention. Others could include how long a charter school gets to meet goals, where it could draw students from, and whether teachers would get the same pay and benefits as they do in regular public schools.
Schools that are chartered are supposed to get more freedom in exchange for agreeing to meet certain goals. In exchange, the group that runs the school signs a contract, or charter, promising to meet certain goals. Advocates say it's a great way to give parents a choice in public schools.
"If public charter schools give a child yet another opportunity to succeed, we all will be better in Mississippi," Gov.-elect Phil Bryant said in a statement. "We can't afford to wait."
Detractors point to studies that show charter school academic results nationwide are not better than regular public schools, and in some cases are worse. A 2009 Stanford University study found students learned less in the typical charter school than peers in traditional public schools, though results varied from state to state.
"I don't see where they really do any better than public schools," said state Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood. He favors more funding for prekindergarten programs as a better way of attacking educational deficiencies.
Nationwide, there are 5,600 charter schools enrolling more than 2 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Mississippi is among 40 states that allow charter schools. But the state has none, unlike the other 39 states.
Under Mississippi law, a school that doesn't meet state standards for three years in a row can be chartered if a majority of parents vote to seek an application to convert the school to new management. The law is only two years old. As many as 82 schools could become eligible for chartering after the end of this school year, when grades for a third year are added. But the earliest a converted school could open is the start of the 2013-2014 school year, if the state Board of Education grants a charter.
Forest Thigpen, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, says the current law makes it so hard to set up and run a charter school that the statute is essentially a "counterfeit," a way to say Mississippi allows charter schools without creating any.
His conservative-leaning group favors relatively free creation of charter schools as a way to provide options even in districts that do a good job.
"We believe that parents ought to have the ability to choose a school that best meets their child's needs," Thigpen said.
Thigpen favors allowing both state and local school boards to bless charters. "Generally speaking, the more authorizers there are, the more chance there will be to have a good variety of charter schools," he said.
At least two other proposals, one by the Parents Campaign and another by the public policy group Mississippi First, would allow only the state Board of Education to create charter schools.
Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, said that although the Stanford study had disappointing results nationwide, it showed that charter schools in some states outperformed traditional peers. One factor those states had in common was having only one chartering entity, preventing school operators for shopping for the most permissive regulator.
"It matters what happens at the state level," Canter said.
Another question is whether charter schools should be allowed statewide, or be limited to districts that are failing state standards.
"Where students already have good options, it's not a good use of resources," said the Parents Campaign's Loome, citing tight state budgets.
The Parents Campaign proposal is backed by education reform advocate Claiborne Barksdale. It is likely to be endorsed as part of the Mississippi Economic Council's goal-setting exercise, called Blueprint. It would allow the state to charter any school that had been rated less than "successful" for two straight years. Attendance would mostly be limited to children living within the school's attendance zone, which would avoid problems under federal desegregation decrees.
It would grant charters only to entities with "a track record of success in operating charter schools," meaning that out-of-state charter operators would have to be involved, since Mississippi has no charter schools now.
"You know you're getting a charter school that's going to be academically solid and well-run," Barksdale said. "They would be out-of-state entities, but so what? Toyota is an out-of-state entity, but we're mighty glad to have them."
Mississippi First wants to chart a middle course between the more permissive approach of Thigpen's group and the restrictions of the Parents Campaign. Canter says that converting failing schools to charters may not be a good idea, saying it's easier to make a clean break with the past by creating an entirely new school. She says some of the most successful charter operators avoid taking over failing schools.
Canter says good operators must be selected on the front end because it can be difficult to shut poorly performing charter schools, just as making big changes to poorly performing traditional schools can raise a ruckus.
"Every school, no matter how dismal, has a committed group of supporters," she said.
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