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Scott Colom: Death of charter school bill leaves lingering questions

 

Scott Colom

 

Today's death of the bill to authorize more charter schools in Mississippi means opponents of charter schools may win this year's battle. But, to win the war over education, these opponents must offer a plan to improve public schools in Mississippi. If not, it's only a matter of time before a charter school will be in a school district near them. 

 

The fight over charter schools started when the Republican leadership decided to make charter schools a signature part of this year's legislative agenda. At the time, maybe the political headwinds seemed so strong that Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn felt they could take on a big issue like public education; maybe they thought it was a part of their mandate after the fall elections. Either way, turns out, they may have thought wrong.  

 

Instead, the charter school bill died the cruelest political death: It was killed by Republicans. Soon after the leadership publicly supported easing the guidelines for starting a charter school, public school supporters attacked the idea. They argued the measure would take money from schools because education dollars follow the student. And, after the recent series of budget cuts to education, they said districts need more money, not less. Some even suggested this was really an attempt to privatize the public system. Others said they couldn't support it because it was too broad. They were fine with charter schools in failing districts, but not theirs. 

 

Under the barrage of letters to the editors and likely calls from teachers and administrators, a few of the Republican soldiers broke rank. Today, the education committee failed to pass the Senate Charter School bill by one vote. Apparently, a delegation of Republicans from Desoto County and North Mississippi decided they liked their schools district just fine and voted against it. So, after investing political capital in a major reform, the Republican leadership may have nothing to show for it. The stakes are so high Governor Bryant threatened to call a special session within the session to force the House to reconsider.  

 

Yet, during the debate over charter schools, opponents never convincingly answered one question: If not charter schools, what is the solution? Everyone agrees many of our public schools need drastic improvement. At many, the drop-out rates are too high and the test scores are too low. Last September, only three school districts across the state received the highest state ranking -- "star" -- and only 27 were labeled "high performing." Columbus is currently on "academic watch" as are all the schools in the district except Sale Elementary -- "a high performer." Nobody can possibly claim these results are good, so how can we improve them, how do we save public education?  

 

When I've asked this question to opponents of charter schools, I've heard various responses. Some argue that if the state fully funded MAEP, school districts would have the money they need to succeed. One friend suggested the Department of Education study success stories, like West Lowndes Elementary's impressive rise from at risk to high performing, and model these methods around the state. 

 

Others admit charter schools should be a part of the solution. They simply think the particular bill should be revised to specify funding and accountability. Of course, it'll be difficult to find new money for charter schools or to fund a study when the budget is recovering from a recession, and it's possibly the most unlikely moment in American history to believe Republicans will raise taxes. 

 

No matter the outcome this year, the real question is whether the opponents of this bill can offer a better solution. That, and whether the Republican leadership can save face. From my conversations with people about charter schools, support for them spreads out across a broad range of political, ideological and generational lines. Many people are disappointed with the status quo of public schools and convinced Mississippi students can do better. If supporters of public schools don't find a convincing way to address this concern, the charter school bill will eventually pass and Republicans will have their signature reform.  

 

Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is colomsw@gmail.com.

 

Scott Colom is a local attorney.

 

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