Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some thoughts on the Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012

If you are looking for full-throated opposition to charter schools, you will not find it from me.  However, that does not mean that there are not serious problems with the Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012, a bill that passed the Senate yesterday.  Charter schools, created with public oversight and the same accountability as regular public schools, can be an effective tool for districts where schools are already failing.  After all, what are those districts going to do? Fail harder?

But there are problems with the bill that passed yesterday.  Here are a few:

  1. Cost - The funding for these schools will come from the same pot of money used by regular public schools, barring some miraculous intervention by the likes of the Kellogg or Gates Foundations. A large number of our education problems stem from the persistent poverty that has plagued Mississippi for decades upon decades.  Building and staffing new public schools costs money that we simply don't have.
  2. Accountability - As I understand it, under this bill, the charter schools would be evaluated every 5 years instead of every year.  That means we won't see their success or failure as quickly as we need to.  If they're doing a bang-up job, we need to know that so we can encourage more of them.  If not, we need to do the opposite.  Putting off evaluation for 5 years tells me that the supporters of charter schools are less than enthused about their chances for success.  Otherwise, they would want the proof before the next election cycle in 2015.
  3. Segregation by parental/familial involvement - Like it or not, the sad fact is that children without involved, educated, capable, and caring parents will be the ones suffer under the charter system.  The parents who now run the PTA, raise money for activities, books, and supplies, and are actively involved in their child's education will be the ones who move their children to the charter schools.  Meanwhile, other children with less involved parents will no longer benefit from the activities of the "super parents."  The library will go without the new books, the basketball team won't get the new uniforms, and the educational experience overall will take a huge hit.  There will be children "left behind" in the old, non-charter public schools, and they will be the ones who are truly hurt by this bill.
  4. Shaky numbers - I've seen where the Knowledge Is Power Program charter school system in the Arkansas Delta appears to have staggeringly high graduation rates.  (93% for the 2010-2011 school year.)  That's an impressive number, no matter where you are.  But when the veil was pulled back on the KIPP schools around the country by researchers at Western Michigan University, there were some surprises.  It turns out that the dropout rate for black males in grades 6-8 was 40%.  Those kids aren't counted in KIPP high school graduation rates, of course, because they don't reach the KIPP high school in the first place.
Another problem was beaten back by Democrats in the Senate via a committee substitute prior to passage.  The original version of the Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012 would have allowed for "virtual" charter schools, which have recently fallen out of vogue around the nation.  With "virtual" charter schools, oversight is even less attainable, and student-to-teacher ratios have been known to climb to as high as 230-1.  Yes, you read that correctly. Student-teacher ratios of 230-1 were allowed under the original Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act of 2012.

Anyway, that's what's bouncing around my head this morning.  I'll leave you with the words of Dr. Paul Hewitt, an assistant professor of educational leadership, curriculum, and instruction at the University of Arkansas:
Just imagine if the regular public schools in your community were given an extra $6,500 by civic minded foundations. Now, imagine the impact on the public school test scores if 60 percent of the most undisciplined students could be encouraged to transfer elsewhere. (Maybe the charter schools would welcome them?) The headlines about highly successful public schools would dominate the news. However, the American people and a nation built on equality for all would never tolerate such an unethical charade. Would we?
Read his full opinion piece in the Arkansas Times here.

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