Charter school effort must be right tool for job

Published 9:00 pm Saturday, March 3, 2012

Although the ability to create charter schools in Mississippi has been on the books for a number of years, with Republican control of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature, it appears a more creative version is set to be passed by both houses.

     In a Senate vote along mostly partisan lines last week, senators passed an encompassing bill to expand the state’s charter schools law that impacts all but the very best districts in the state. A different and less encompassing House version of charter schools is expected to reach the floor late next week after surviving a close education committee vote Wednesday.

     Where and how the charter school bill will wind up remains to be seen, but it appears to be solidly on a fast track toward passage. Level-thinking lawmakers would do well to apply the brakes and consider some valid charter school concerns before rushing a bill to the governor’s desk.

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     Funding issues related to all schools need particular attention in the discussion.

     According to the Associated Press, “all state and local tax money would follow a student to a charter school, even when they cross district lines. However, only the local portion of the state funding formula, not all local money, would follow students when they cross county lines.”

     That sounds all well and good for getting money to the new charter schools where school systems have failed or are failing.  But what happens in the more successful districts? The Senate version is much broader in its scope while the House committee version focuses on failed districts that have been taken over by the state, such as those in the Delta as well as others closer to this area in Hazlehurst and Prentiss.

     Education aside, one has to wonder about the splitting of the dollars to allow Little Johnny to play football or to participate in other extracurricular activities. One has to wonder about splitting the dollars to pay for buses to get him to and from school, as well as splitting the dollars to maintain the buildings in which he is to learn. Where is the money coming from to run dual systems?

     More years than not, the Legislature has failed to fully fund the court-mandated Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which was designed to give all schools sufficient revenue to meet mid-level achievement standards. If school districts are behind the funding mark already, won’t sending dollars to charter schools put them further behind?

     Faced with such situations, school districts that are constantly losing students to charter schools could be forced to look to local taxpayers to pay for those things many of us want in our schools. Effectively, local tax dollars then could be going to support two school systems – the new charter school that is attracting students and the old one that is struggling to take care of everyone else.

     To be sure, supporters are not saying that charters schools will be a panacea – a cure-all – for state education’s ills. They are saying it is a needed and necessary tool for going about the task of improving education.

     We cannot disagree that changes are needed in many districts, but lawmakers must make sure that whatever kind of charter school tool is added to the toolbox, it is the right one for the job and not one that does more damage than good.