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Mississippi needs to pass a bill which will support Charter Schools

Charter school law may get strengthened


JACKSON - Mississippi's charter school law is set to expire in July and could be strengthened this legislative session.

The current law is "considered the weakest in the United States," said Mike Chaney, a former state senator who is now insurance commissioner.

"Actually, it's the sorriest, and I wrote it."

Mississippi's current law allows for only six charter schools, and they are converted from existing public schools. Only one charter school is operating - the Hayes Cooper Center in Merigold, but many consider it more of a magnet school.

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.

Additional charter school bills have been introduced since the first one passed in 1997 but failed for reasons including fear of segregation and loss of money for public schools.

"The current law is just too limited," said House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.

Brown, who is planning to submit a charter school bill this session, says there is a lot of interest in charter schools. At least three bills already have been filed on the issue this session.

Under Brown's proposal, new start-up schools could be created with independent boards. Attendance would be done by lottery, which would help offset fears of de facto segregation and cherry-picking the best and brightest students from public schools. Brown said his proposal also provides for schools' accountability.

Charter schools could provide an opportunity "to shake things up and help create some competition," said Senate Education Committee Vice Chairman Gray Tollison, D-Oxford.

He has introduced a bill that would authorize up to five new charter schools with a lottery enrollment system.

"If we don't pass something this year, I believe the law will repeal," Tollison said. "I think we need to create opportunities for kids."

The Department of Education wants to have input into any charter school legislation passed this session.

There is no research that shows charter schools perform better than traditional public schools, state Superintendent Hank Bounds told The Clarion-Ledger editorial board last week.

"For that reason, I don't support charter schools," he said.

Charter schools are one way of offering choice to parents, Brown said. For example, a student in a school district with one middle school wouldn't have a choice other than a private school if the middle school is failing. If a group of parents wanted to get together and begin their own school instead of home-schooling, they ought to have another option, he said.

How existing schools would be impacted are among the issues to be considered, Brown said. There also are concerns about governance, funding and how those schools would recruit and hire personnel.

Advocates say charter schools also are an avenue for innovation.

But good academic performance usually is tied to good leadership in both charter schools and traditional ones, Bounds said.

About 780 students attended the center during the 2007-2008 school year. It does not have an independent school board and is part of the Cleveland school district.

A majority of the center's students don't qualify for free or reduced lunch while most students in the rest of the district do, Bounds said.

Supporters say charter schools don't take away money from public schools, but that's not true, Bounds said. If a child attends a charter school instead of a public one, the public school loses money, he said. Student enrollment is one factor in determining how much money a public school gets.

Brown said with his bill, charter schools would not be fully funded by their local school districts.

For state education advocacy groups, the primary question of charter schools is one of education equality.

The Parents' Campaign has not taken a position on charter schools. The organization is monitoring the issue , executive director Nancy Loome said.

"We want to make sure that there are no unintended consequences as a result of that legislation."

Parents for Public Schools is not against charter schools in general, but is more in favor of providing all children with a quality education, said Susan Womack, executive director of the Greater Jackson Chapter of Parents for Public Schools.

"The important thing from our position is that charter schools remain fair and equitable with open admissions processes," she said.

As with public schools, some charters work and some don't, Womack said.

Successful charter schools "have plenty of resources ... strong leaders, quality teachers and address the needs of the children they're teaching."

But the same is true for traditional public schools, she said.

"If we know what works for kids, we should be doing it for all children."



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