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Charlie Mitchell: Making sense of charter schools




OXFORD -- It's hard to know what workaday people envision when the notion of "charter schools" is floated, usually as an all-purpose cure for whatever ails public education. 


"Ah, yes. Charter schools. They will fix everything." 


Certainly House Speaker Phillip Gunn, R-Clinton, caused a kerfuffle last week when he "fired" Rep. Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, from the Education Committee and replaced her with Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula. 


Whittington was among those who foiled the gung-ho group, including Busby, determined to make charter school legislation the crowning achievement of the 2012 lawmaking season. 


Gunn said there were other reasons for the old switcheroo, but appointing Busby greases the skids for charter schools legislation in the 2013 session. 


Aside from the political machinations, let's look at what charter schools are -- and what they're not. 


Across America, there are three basic varieties: 




For-profit corporate schools 


The business model for these schools mirrors privatized garbage collection. 




Starting about 40 years ago, local governments found they could save money by contracting out the collection and disposal of household waste. And corporations found they could make a lot of money taking over what had been public sector jobs and duties. 


"Out-sourcing," became the rage. Many school districts already have private companies operating their buses, serving food in their cafeterias. (Mississippi pays a lot of private firms for "incarceration services," too.) 


The main purpose of for-profit charter schools is to make money for owners and investors. Period. End of sentence. 




Dedicated chains 


These are the good schools we hear about. Usually chartered as nonprofits, they are education-centered, hire only the best administrators and don't tolerate inefficiency in the classrooms. They expect students to perform and don't take much guff from parents. They are serious. They are rare. 




Neighborhood associations 


Such a "take back our schools" vision is what may come to mind for many. A band of parents decides that if freed from the entanglements of "government schools," much can be accomplished. 


It is an idyllic vision, one that harkens to one-room schools where serious learning could take place because distractions were few. 


But in Mississippi, especially, the problem with a local group insisting it can and should be allowed to operate a non-government school is that this is exactly what led to so-called "segregation academies" in the 1970s. Whether it is the intent of today's charter school proponents to funnel public money to the state's all-white or nearly all-white private schools, the federal government is not going to tolerate that appearance or outcome. 


Gov. Phil Bryant is an unabashed supporter of charter school legislation and has made many statements praising the effectiveness of charter schools in Louisiana and Arkansas. He says they are part of "giving students every opportunity to succeed" and even considered calling a special session when charter schools legislation died an ignominious death during this year's legislative term. 


But he has also said he understands -- and Gunn has said the same thing -- that whatever legislation is adopted must be tailored to work for Mississippi students. Indeed. And that's much easier said than done. 


During the 2012 session, state superintendents were called lots of bad names as they worked quietly, usually behind the scenes. It was likely they really, sincerely wanted a workable law as opposed to pie in the sky. But they were called protectionists, accused of wanting only to hold on to their "cushy" jobs. 


This is certainly no across-the-board defense of Mississippi school superintendents, but accusing each and every one of pure treachery was, well, unfounded. No problem with people getting fired up about education, but perspective was too easily discarded. 


Facts: Schools could be better here and everywhere else. The charter approach, when tried, has worked well in some places, not so well in others. Maybe something good for Mississippi can be adopted. Maybe it's a bridge politically too far. 


Overall, as has been written before, what schools need most is for politicians to give them buildings and money for teachers, books and supplies -- then butt out. 


When you think about it, the thrust of all charter school legislation -- at least in the popular imagination -- is a plea for simplification. It's all about those halcyon days where the compact was simple. Teachers taught. Students learned. Parents supported the efforts of both. And amazing things happened.




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