Discussion in Clarksdale: Are charter schools viable in rural Mississippi?

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Left to right: Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board chair Krystal Cormack, Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, Clarksdale Collegiate executive director Amanda Johnson, and Hechinger Report reporter Jackie Mader discuss rural charter schools.

CLARKSDALE – Emotions ran high during a discussion hosted by Mississippi Today here Tuesday on the impact of the state’s first rural charter school approved to open in Clarksdale next year.

This was the first of two Mississippi Today-led discussions about the viability of charter schools in rural areas. The second discussion will be hosted today in Indianola.

The events, free and open to the public, bring together local, state and national legislative and educational leaders to discuss the challenges facing charter schools and communities in a rural setting.

Mississippi Today’s co-editor, Fred Anklam, served as a convener for Tuesday’s discussion. Watch the live stream below.

In September, the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board approved Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School’s application. The school is led by Amanda Johnson and will open in the 2018-19 school year with a projected 150 kindergarteners through second-graders.

School officials say Clarksdale Collegiate will eventually expand to serve kindergarten through eighth grade by the 2028 school year.

Much concern was expressed Tuesday about whether federal, state and local education funding follows a student from the public school district to to the charter school when it opens.

“If a child leaves the public school, they deserve to have that money to provide them with an education,” said Johnson. She said she realizes decisions will have to be made at the local level but it’ll be worth having Clarksdale Collegiate and having a high quality school that she’s going to be held accountable.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Citizens attend a Mississippi Today panel discussion about rural charter schools in Mississippi.

Jackie Mader, reporter for the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, gave a national perspective on the different challenges of rural charter schools. Some include retaining teachers and declining student population.

“It can be really controversial and difficult when there’s a new school coming in, a charter school, and it can often be seen as competition for these resources,” said Mader.

Other states with high numbers of charter schools, such as California with 114 and Wisconsin with 62, are a portion of the 16 percent of rural charters nationwide, said Mader. These, too, face some of the same challenges.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board chair Krystal Cormack, far left, Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, Clarksdale Collegiate executive director Amanda Johnson and Hechinger Report reporter Jackie Mader discuss rural charter schools.

Krystal Cormack, chair of the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, said they’re looking for charter schools to utilize federal, state, and local funds while writing grants and raising money to generate additional funds.

Pulling students from the existing C, D, and F rated districts in Coahoma County while inviting students from other districts can provide racial and community diversity, said Cormack. This can eliminate the amount of financial and enrollment impact in just one place, she said.

“In theory many things sound great, but I have to deal with reality. … Transportation is a real problem for me,” said State Rep. Jay Hughes.

“We talk about is it economically viable … well, a public school district doesn’t have to be economically viable so [students] go where no one else will go and [the district] accepts every single child.”

Hughes argued that local districts are underfunded  through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, so why entertain the idea of a charter school. MAEP, a formula which determines funding level for public schools, has been fully funded only twice since its inception in 1997.

“EdBuild and I agree on one thing – it costs more money, time and effort to educate a high poverty student,” he said. “When you take away money from a school, it’s already underfunded, then that’s even less money to fund that high poverty school and those high poverty students.”

EdBuild, a New Jersey based education consulting firm, has provided  recommendations for changing the state’s education funding formula to Mississippi legislators that used weights for certain types of students.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Citizens hear issues and hopes around the state’s first approved rural charter school.

Johnson said the public schools could get together and present a united front to increase public school funding.

“We’re either going to make this a great opportunity for the citizens of Clarksdale and Coahoma County or we’re going to argue and both continue to push and struggle,” said Johnson.

She added that this is not a threat, but an opportunity to be a model for what rural education can look like.

“We understand that charter schools are not the solution, but we do intend on being part of the solution,” she said.

Johnson said it’s not fair to choose to have a great traditional public school or a great charter school. Why not both? She said the community needs a conversation about how all schools in Clarksdale can be great for all kids.

Despite those difficulties, Mader gave examples of how rural communities nationwide have utilized charters to their advantage.

Preserving culture and addressing the needs of the community are unique benefits for charters in rural areas, said Mader. This uniqueness gets lost in urban areas, and those schools often don’t offer anything other than college prep, she said.

Clarksdale Collegiate promises to be “unapologetically college prep” and will make sure all students will be prepared to excel in high school and college, said Johnson. Clarksdale Collegiate is still searching for a facility in which to conduct classes.

Last year, the charter school authorizer board received nine letters of intent, six completed applications and approve only one school – Clarksdale Collegiate. In the past, they’ve received 30 applications total and approved only five schools, according to Cormack.

“Regardless of the different views we may have up here, I respect each one of these ladies that are at this table,” said Hughes. “I respect anyone who is involved in engaging and educating our children. It is our future.”