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Failed charter school bill highlights state education needs


Carmen K. Sisson



Charter school legislation is dead, with little chance for resuscitation before the end of the session Sunday, but most supporters and opponents agree it's only a matter of time before charter schools become a reality in districts across the state.  


Despite strong support from Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, the measure died in conference Monday when the state House and Senate committees failed to reach agreement.  


The primary sticking point was whether to allow successful districts, as rated by the Mississippi Department of Education's accountability rankings system, to veto charter schools.  


The House on March 15 passed a version of the bill, allowing charter schools in public school districts ranked low-performing, at risk of failing or failing by MDE's state accountability model.  


But the Senate disagreed with the language, passing an amended version of the bill on April 11. The amendment would have allowed charter schools in successful, high-performing or star (the highest tier) districts, if they were approved by majority vote by the local school board. Those provisions would have been repealed July 1, 2015, thereafter allowing charter schools in successful districts without a vote or with a majority vote in high-performing and star districts.  


When the amended bill was sent to conference, it died.  


Although it could be resurrected before sine die (the end of the session), it's unlikely, Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said.  


The only other hope for the bill this go-around is for Bryant to make good on his intimations to extend the legislative calendar by calling a special session to try to pass charter school legislation.  


Chism was among those who supported charter schools in low-performing, at risk and failing districts, but wanted local school boards in star, high-performing and successful districts to retain the right to veto.  


He said Tuesday he still believes local school boards should have the right to veto charter schools in successful districts, but he fully supports the legislation in academically troubled districts.  


"Every child deserves a quality education," Chism said. "You and I would move or we would send our kids to a private school if (the local public school district) was not performing well. But in some of these areas, they're trapped. They can't move." 




Follow the money 


Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, who also serves as board attorney for the Lowndes County School District, said he supports charter school legislation, but he wants it available to districts rated successful or lower, without the option of veto by the local board.  


Comparing the state department of education's star to failing system with a standard report card, Smith said a successful school would equal a "C" average, which he equated with "mediocrity." 


"Our public schools are the last in the nation, so we've got to try something else," Smith said. "We've proven one thing in Mississippi: Money won't solve education's problems." 


But for opponents of charter schools, money is the crux of the issue. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate outside some of the rules and regulations for traditional schools. For example, charter schools' leaders determine the length of the school day and the school year. Though they're required to operate beneath the umbrella of the state department of education, local, state and federal dollars "follow" students to charter schools instead of staying within districts which, in many cases, are already struggling financially. 


"If they're on academic watch, then yes, we're going to be taking money away from them, because they're not successful," Chism said. "It will really have teeth in something that's going to make them try to compete better. There is that argument that they're going to be struck a little worse, but they shouldn't be on academic watch." 


The Columbus Municipal School District likely would be affected. The district is on academic watch for its second consecutive year after rising from at-risk status. Financial woes are a daily reality for the city schools, with the district declaring a shortfall nine of the past 10 years.  


Likewise, money is a concern for the district's students as well, with the Mississippi Department of Education reporting an 80 percent student household poverty rate, with a racial makeup of 89 percent black and nine percent white.  


The Lowndes County School District raised its rating from successful to high-performing this year, with a 44 percent poverty level and a racial ratio of 62 percent white and 36 percent black. 




Focus on achievement 


Even if the charter schools bill remains dead this session, CMSD Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell Tuesday said charter schools are "definitely on the horizon." 


The only recourse for the district -- and others like it -- is to become more academically competitive, she said. Instead of fighting the inevitability of charter schools, the fight should be against low achievement. 


"Taking the position to simply complain is a formula for doom," Liddell said. "My position on charter schools is they should be held to the same standards and accountability as public schools. The playing field should be leveled and not a means of charters taking in only the students they want and gutting school districts' enrollment and funding." 


She said if the charter schools bill had passed as written this legislative session, it would have been "devastating" for the city school district.  


Currently, Sale Elementary International Studies Magnet School is the only high-performing public school within the city.  


"High-performing schools in Columbus must become the standard, and the only way to make that happen is to concentrate as a district on achievement," Liddell said. "We must determine through data what's working and what's not and have the courage to make necessary changes." 


Only three districts in the state rank as star districts -- Clinton, Enterprise and Pass Christian. Only 27 of the state's 152 districts ranked high-performing for the 2010-2011 school year. Locally, only Caledonia Elementary ranks as a star school.  


The Starkville School District rose from academic watch to successful, whereas the Okibbeha County School District rose from two consecutive years at risk, but still ranks low-performing.  


Noxubee County has been on academic watch two consecutive years, after rising from at-risk status. The Clay County School District is high performing, and West Point City Schools are in their second year of academic watch.  


The Aberdeen School District, in neighboring Monroe County, was taken over by the state last week and is now one of eight Mississippi school districts in conservatorship, a process which allows a governing entity to seize control over an organization, if the action is approved by a statutory or regulatory authority.


Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.



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