For over a decade, I have hoped and prayed that Mississippi's public school system would find its way out of the dark ages and embrace genuine school reform. Why? As a native of Mississippi and a former public school teacher, I am deeply concerned about the future of its education system. As a disclaimer, Mississippi possesses several school districts that have consistently gone above and beyond "the call of duty" to ensure that all of their students succeed, and for that, they should be praised immensely. While it still has many miles to go, Senate Bill 2401, which proposes to expand charter schools in Mississippi, is certainly a step in the right direction.
Senate Bill 2401 would permit students from anywhere in the state to attend a charter school, however, school boards in the state's "star" or "high performing" districts would have the autonomy to decide whether or not to allow charter schools to operate within their borders. Also, charter schools could be established in the states remaining districts, as long as they are approved by a proposed seven-member commission. While the charter school debate is a contentious one all over America, most people agree that something has to be done about our education system.
Many Mississippians believe that charter schools could potentially be used to re-segregate public schools in the state, but sadly that ship has sailed. In the United States, Black and Hispanic students tend to be concentrated in schools where they make up almost the entire student body. Also, the percentage of black students in majority white schools has decreased to a level lower than in any year since 1968. Point blank, Mississippi's schools resegregated a long time ago and we stood by and watched it happen. I agree that charter schools could potentially be used to increase resegregation in Mississippi schools but, how much more segregated can they get? To use this as a reason to keep charter schools out of the state is "reaching" at best. Don't get me wrong, segregation is deplorable, but let's be honest, in Mississippi its business as usual.
Others decry that the proposed law should be amended to give public schools the exact same freedom as charter schools, but Mississippi's public schools have had years to clean up their acts and they have consistently proven that they cannot or will not do it on their own. In the crucial area of education, the Mississippi public school system lags behind many other states in the U.S. Despite its best efforts, the disparity between students from middle and low socioeconomic backgrounds continues to grow. School systems are using more money but have less to show for it. Test results, especially among the children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are dismal. The ramifications of this trend are significant.
Neighboring states such as Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama understand that well-educated workers are crucial for their survival in the competitive global economy. Thus, they are placing enormous emphasis on education, ensuring that their students are given not only foundational reading and math skills, but also that they are able to think creatively and solve problems. Instead, of fighting innovation, I am happy to see that Mississippi is starting to seriously invest in its education system via Senate Bill 2401 and other innovative measures.
My only concern about allowing charter schools in Mississippi is that can potentially be exploited by for-profit educational management organizations, which operate schools using "a business model" and only exist to make money. Education is one of the biggest market opportunities in our country today. For-profit educational management organizations that are given charters in Mississippi should be required to keep open books. If this is done, I have no reservations about Mississippi's Senate Bill 2401.
In my opinion, Senate Bill 2401 is the best chance that Mississippi's children have. The state can stand by and allow its children to attend schools that are incapable of turning out students who are able to compete in today's global marketplace or they can take bold steps to engender school reform and innovation. To choose the former would be to mortgage our children's futures and limit their potential. The future must be planned for now. It certainly will not be an overnight process; however, by taking steps one at a time, an enormous amount of ground can be covered in the coming years.
President John F. Kennedy evoked this when speaking about another challenge: putting an American on the moon. "We do this not because it is easy," he said, "but because it is hard." Mississippi's educational system deserves no less of an effort: not because it is easy, but because it is hard... and well worth it.