Though the recent Mississippi Senate passage of legislation to establish charter schools may appear a victory to proponents, we have been here before. Last year similar legislation passed the Senate and died in the House Education Committee, dashing any hopes of a potential boost in K-12 educational achievement provided by charter schools.
I attended traditional public schools in this great state, and have also taught in a few really exceptional ones. Despite my good experiences in the traditional public school model, the statistics tell me that the vast majority of our young students are not being given the educational foundation they deserve. As this paramount education decision heads over to the House of Representatives, consider these points when it comes to the issue of charter schools in Mississippi:
1. Mississippi currently fails in educating K- 12 students. For years Mississippi has ranked at the bottom of national lists when it comes to K-12 achievement. Most recently, Education Week gave a D+ grade to the state when it comes to chance for success of K-12 students. The publication went on to give the state an F when it comes to building and support capacity. Traditional public schools in the state are clearly overextended and charter schools can help alleviate some of the educational burden.
2. Competition improves quality. The public school system in Mississippi has had years to improve on its own and clearly this time has been wasted. Instead of focusing on true educational reform, too much time has been wasted on issues of pay and program budgets. Charter schools will force public schools to improve or lose their students.
3. Charter schools provide higher success rates for low-income students. Studies consistently find that students from low-income backgrounds excel in charter school environments. Without the constraints of traditional public school red tape, teachers are able to better reach students.
4. Charter schools are public institutions. There seems to be a common misconception that charter schools are private ones. In truth, charter schools are held accountable for student achievement and must abide by state educational laws. Many charter schools are not-for-profit organizations.
5. Lower student-to-teacher ratios improve success. The top five performing charter schools in the nation, as reported by U.S. News, have a student-teacher ratio of 17:1 or lower. The top four on the list have a college readiness score of 100 percent, and the fifth school has a college readiness rating of 93.8 percent. In contrast, Mississippi district elementary schools have a student-teacher ratio of 22:1. See my next point to find out how these numbers can potentially affect the academic success of Mississippi's students.
6. Academic success leads to a higher quality workforce. Students that receive a high quality K-12 education have a fighting chance at making a better life for themselves. On the flip side, students that receive a sub-par education are more likely to fall victim to generational poverty and even incarceration. In 2011, the U.S. Census reported that just 19.7 percent of Mississippi's residents had a bachelor's degree or higher; the national average was 28.2 percent. The same report showed 21.6 percent of Mississippi residents living below the poverty line, while the national average is 14.3 percent. How can students that come from homes of underachievement and attend schools that underperform be expected to make something more of their lives? Charter schools give them a fighting chance, at least.
7. Teaching to the test is virtually nonexistent in charter schools. Unlike traditional public school models that often include teaching with the sole purpose of increasing standardized test scores, charter schools establish their own set of achievement goals. Mandates like No Child Left Behind do not have as much of an impact on teaching methodology -- allowing teachers to use innovative, customized plans for each student and class.
8. Desegregation is not possible. One of the biggest arguments against charter schools is that they lead to re-segregation of schools. I'd argue that in the state of Mississippi that is not possible. The public schools here are already largely re-segregated. The percentage of black students in schools with a white student majority is lower than it was in 1968. Throughout the country, Hispanic and black students still tend to go to school in places where they make up most of the student body. While charter schools may not lead to desegregation, they certainly cannot hurt and using this argument as a scare tactic is desperate at best.
9. Charter schools provide fresh starts. Students that attend schools in their district often face educational obstacles that have nothing to do with the school itself. Neighborhood friends, proximity to home and other environmental constraints give students a personal identity, sometimes negative, that they have trouble escaping. Charter schools give students the opportunity to be someone new -- a different version of the person they have been their whole lives. With no prejudgments, students are less intimidated to excel in school.
10. Charter schools foster a culture of success. I am the first to admit that charter schools are by no means a cure-all, but at least they provide Mississippi's education system with a viable option and its children with a chance for success. You may not believe that charter schools are good for our educational system, but what is certain is that our educational system needs to change. Our youngsters are the future of this great state, and our educators must do their part to help put Mississippi on top in both economics and education.
I'd urge the Mississippi House Representatives to consider these points when deciding the future of charter schools in Mississippi. I'd also urge constituents to let their preference for charter schools be known to their representatives. While I realize that charter schools cannot, and will not, solve all of the education issues in the state, they are a necessary step in Mississippi K-12 education reform.