April 10, 2013 9:30:03 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - firstname.lastname@example.org
Charter schools could begin showing up in area school districts as early as next year, pending Gov. Phil Bryant's signature on House Bill 369, which passed the Senate last week 34-18. The governor has said he will sign the bill, opening the door for up to 15 charter schools per year to open in struggling and failing school districts across the state.
Based upon the Mississippi Department of Education's 2011-2012 accountability rankings, 57 of the state's 151 districts would be eligible for a charter school, MDE communications director Patrice Guilfoyle said Tuesday afternoon. Approved charter schools will be able to locate in "D" and "F" districts without local approval, but locating in "A," "B," and "C" districts will require approval by the local school boards. Once a charter school is in a district, it will not be removed if test scores improve.
Columbus Municipal School District, along with Oktibbeha County School District and West Point School District are all listed as "D" districts, on academic watch. Noxubee County School District, which received an "F," dropped from academic watch to low-performing this year.
Proponents of charter schools say they benefit from less regulation, allowing educators to customize curricula and provide the specialized attention struggling students need.
But in order to be effective, they must address a real need and do a good job of meeting that need, says Nancy Loome, executive director of Parents' Campaign, a parent advocacy group for public schools.
Loome, guest speaker at Tuesday's Columbus Rotary Club meeting at Holiday Inn on Highway 45, said her group is pleased the newly-approved legislation prohibits for-profit charter schools, but no mention is made of online-based "virtual schools," and there is some concern politics will play too large a role.
Before a charter school can be formed, a proposal must be approved by a seven-member authorizer board, with three members appointed by the governor, three by the lieutenant governor and one by the state board of education. Members will serve three-year, staggered terms.
The authorizer board must be in place by Sept. 1 and charter school proposals must be received by Dec. 1.
Schools will be approved for five-year terms and students will not be allowed to cross district lines to attend. The school demographics for underserved students must reflect that of the district by at least 30 percent. Enrollment will be chosen by lottery.
But, Loome cautioned, while there are charter school success stories, there are also cautionary tales of districts where a good idea went wrong.
Recent statistics indicate only 17 percent of charter schools out-perform traditional public schools, while 46 percent perform the same and 37 percent perform worse.
"We don't want those numbers in Mississippi," Loome said.
And charter schools can't solve the state's education woes alone.
The key to improving education, Loome said, is a four-pronged approach: Making sure children are "school-ready" before kindergarten, offering a rigorous curriculum, providing excellent teaching and giving students enough classroom time.
Some of the other legislation passed last week aims to address those needs.
Legislators approved a bill to implement voluntary pre-kindergarten, which Loome said is critical to giving students the foundation they need to be successful, and, ultimately, remain in school.
She said many children enter kindergarten at the emotional and intellectual level of two or three year olds, making it difficult for teachers to advance them to where they need to be by the end of the school year.
Compounding the issue and making it difficult for Mississippi to compete globally is that students spend less time in the classroom. Mississippi schools are obligated to provide 180 days of instruction, whereas other countries require 200-225 days. And those days are longer, too, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.