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Slimantics: Charter schools: The poor get poorer

 

Slim Smith

 

For the second time in two years, the Mississippi Senate has passed Charter School legislation. The bill, which has a faint aroma of Good -Ole-Boy corruption, would permit for-profit charter schools to open in chronically low performing districts. The zeal in which the Senate has pursued charter schools the past two years, including borderline illegal meeting of the joint Senate-House education committee and exiling a committee member who had opposed the charter school bill last year, suggests the possibility that somebody is set up to profit from the arrival of charter schools beyond the owners of the schools.  

 

So, if the House does sign off on the Senate's bill, hold your nose and follow the money. 

 

Aside from the Senate's choice of for-profit charter schools, even reputable non-profit charter schools are likely to do little to improve the state of education in Mississippi.  

 

In Mississippi's case, sometime being late to the party is a benefit. Charter schools have been around for close to 20 years, which means there is some data on how effective these types of schools have been. 

 

The data indicates that only 17 percent of charter schools have actually outperformed their public school counterparts. Worse, still, 37 percent of charter schools don't perform as well as traditional public schools. Those statistics demonstrate that charter schools are much like the public schools: Some succeed, some fail. The Senate's bill was amended so that any charter school that has an "F" rating for two years in a row will be shut down. That's not much comfort, though, when you consider that a charter school could have a "D" rating for years and years without the threat of having the rug yanked out from under them.  

 

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the charter schools that would open in Mississippi are all excellent schools and perform wonderfully well.  

 

What sort of impact would that have on the overall quality of education in the state?  

 

Not much. Here's why: Most charter schools have very small enrollments -- less than 100 students. The largest rarely have more than 200 students.  

 

Let's be extravagant and say that a charter school would open in every county in the state (something that the present Senate bill doesn't even allow for). In that case, charter schools would serve, at most, around 16,000 students. That's 16,000 out of almost a half-million students currently enrolled in our schools. 

 

Given that, have we really moved the dial on improving the state's woeful educational system? 

 

You might argue, as charter school proponents have, that a charter school would at least allow parents to rescue their child from a hopelessly inadequate public school. That's a hard argument to refute, of course. 

 

But should the state create a situation where, some students ¬≠are rescued at the expense of all the other children in that low-performing school? Keep in mind, that charter schools can limit the number of students they accept. Chances are, there will be some parents who will want to have their children in a charter school who are denied that opportunity. In cases where demand exceeds the number of slots available, students would be chosen by a lottery system. Essentially, you would have to get lucky to have that "choice.'' 

 

The likely reality is that charter schools will benefit the fortunate few at the cost of the majority because there is money involved. 

 

State, local and federal funds for education are appropriated on a per-student basis. Currently, Columbus schools receive about $8,000 per student. When a student leaves a school, that money goes with him or her.  

 

For the sake of illustration, let's say a charter school opened in Columbus that had an enrollment of 100 students. That's $800,000 out of the Columbus School District's budget. You might think that the exit of those students would mean lower cost s for Columbus schools so it would all turn out to be a financial wash. But most of the district's costs are fixed. Even with the exit of 100 students, Columbus would still need the same number of teachers, staff, buses, etc. The best estimate is that the total amount of savings realized by the departure of a student is about $500. 

 

That means Columbus schools' net loss would be $750,000. Anyone who doesn't think that would have a severe negative impact simply isn't paying attention or doesn't care. 

 

Keep in mind, that the state has done a horrible job in funding schools for some time. In fact, schools have lost $1 billion in funding over the past five years. This year, the estimate is that schools will be underfunded by almost $260 million. 

 

There is every reason to believe that charter schools will make poor schools even poorer. Those chronically under-performing schools -- the direct target of the charter school legislation -- would become wastelands. Not only would those schools likely lose their best students and parents, they would lose even more funding. 

 

The state's obligation is not to simply improve education for the fortunate few. It's solemn duty is to educate every child. 

 

Our legislators seem ready to abdicate that responsibility. 

 

The charter school legislation would favor the few over the many, which has always been the story of Mississippi. Is it any wonder we are the poorest, least education, least healthy state in the union? 

 

The benefit of charter schools are simply not worth the costs.  

 

Only the House of Representative stands in the way. 

 

To contact your representative in the House: 

 

Jim Becket (Clay/Oktibbeha County), 601-359-3335; Chris Brown (Lowndes) 601-359-4515; Gary Chism (Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha), 601-359-3364; Reecy Dickson (Noxubee), 601-359-2433; Tyrone Ellis (Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Noxubee), 601-359-4084; Esther Harrison (Lowndes), eharrison@house.ms.gov; Jeff Smith (Lowndes) 601-359-3343.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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