By Savannah Day
Public charter schools have only been around as a unique alternative to traditional district schools since the 1990s in the United States, but they have recently become a popular policy tool. They are separate from normal district schools and usually run by private entities while still being publicly funded.
According to socialsolutions.com, the concept is similar to “large companies contracting a separate food service or a janitorial company to clean and maintain their offices.” They are chartered for an experimental five years or so, and after that, the school’s renewal is up to the state legislature.
Because charter schools are privately run, they are not constrained to most government education regulation. They are free to modify and innovate. This can involve curriculum, school times, and testing.
The schools are tuition-free, and enrollment is not based on application. Everyone who wants to go can go until the school hits capacity, then a lottery-based enrollment is established.
Charter schools typically have a mission that guides the vision of its principles and reason for establishment. For example, college readiness or technical skills improvement are two common ones.
Mississippi lawmakers see this move as an attractive way to increase alternative educational options for economically disadvantaged and minority students who are often zoned to failing schools.
“I believe it should not matter what zip code you live in, nor should it matter what your mom and dad do – or in too many instances – don’t do for a living,” Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves recently said during an interview with the University of Mississippi Capitol Press Corps. “Every kid in our state deserves an opportunity for success.”
Mississippi public schools are often underfunded and understaffed. In a recent reporting trip to a school district in the Delta region, a friend of mine expressed “shock” seeing crumbling classrooms and meeting inexperienced teachers. And it’s no secret Mississippi often places last in our nation for education.
But to policymakers, what’s taught doesn’t matter. Graduation does.
“We have tried to move our conversation away from one of inputs to one of outcomes,” Reeves said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s how well those kids are performing that’s going to decide how well they do in life.”
Reeves is referring to one of the main outcomes the Phil Bryant campaign has worked towards – the graduation rate. Since Bryant has been in office as governor of Mississippi, the high school graduation rate has increased from 73 percent to 82 percent. While this should be applauded, if Reeves wants the conversation to be about outcomes, so be it.
There are currently three charter schools in Mississippi: Midtown Public and Reimagine Prep both founded in 2015, and Smilow Prep in 2016. They are all located in Jackson, the home of the always F-rated public school district, and the city with the highest crime rate in the state.
“We’ve seen some pretty significant results,” Reeves said, regarding the success rate of Mississippi charter schools. Has he seen the same results everyone else has?
These three charter schools that the state legislature has invested in and created for the sole purpose of giving at-risk students more opportunity got two D ratings for performance this past school year, and Midtown Public got an F rating, according to the Mississippi Department of Education Accountability Report.
“I think if you put [lower-income children] in the right environment, they can learn just as quickly and just as capable as any other student in our state,” Reeves said.
So why can’t the school they already attend offer that environment?
When asked why moving students to a different school instead of improving the school they’re already in is a better option, Reeves answered: “In the long term, you will see improvement in the traditional public schools because of the competition the public charter schools have brought.”
And in an interview with the Alabama Media Group, Alabama State Senator Del Marsh said: “Charters will do nothing but make the public system better because it is a degree of competition within the system, and competition is not a bad thing.”
But once a new “better” school is created, why wouldn’t someone want to go to it? How can the old district school compete?
Funds that could have been allocated to the district school to improve it are now being used to fund the charter school. The high-achieving students have most likely moved out of the district school and into the charter school. Even the high-achieving teachers might sign on with this beacon of hope instead of staying at their poorly performing district school. The district school is left unable to compete.
For example, if the Brookhaven Public School District, which has been around for over half a century, is a C-rated school due to its poor performances that stem from a lack of resources, why are we pouring more money into a new school to give them the resources Brookhaven needs?
I believe in equal opportunity. I believe in fixing things that are broken. Creating a new school does not fix the old school.
In regards to other states, the Alabama state legislature passed the Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act in March 2015 allowing the creation of charter schools, but since then, only one school has been created – ACCEL Academy in Mobile, founded this past semester. It has been almost three years and nearly nothing has changed.
SLAM Academy is another example of a charter school that has tried to get its start in Huntsville, Alabama. SLAM has not operated yet because Huntsville public schools are currently under a desegregation order, according to Alabama Media Group.
This is a clear representation of trying to add charter schools in the mix when there are obviously already problems within district schools that should be prioritized. Again, creating a new school does not fix the old school.
Just because charter schools are growing in trend around the nation does not mean they will produce valuable results that help redefine Mississippi’s deep-rooted educational subordination. I don’t believe in the hype. I don’t believe in charter schools.
Savannah Day, 20, is a UM sophomore pursuing a double degree in public policy leadership and broadcast journalism. Her minor is intelligence and security studies. She grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but was raised an Ole Miss Rebel. Day is a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Tri Delta sorority, the Associated Student Body Legislative Council, and Lambda Sigma Honors Society. In Day’s free time, she enjoys hot yoga classes and walking her labrador, Scarlett. She hopes to pursue a career in Washington, D.C. in political reporting.