Charter school debate: ‘Better’ or ‘just different?’

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Mississippi Today hosted a discussion in Indianola about the viability of rural charter schools in Indianola on Wednesday.

INDIANOLA — “Flexibility” was the word of the night Wednesday as educators, advocates and a legislator sparred over the issue of rural charter schools in Mississippi.

Mississippi Today hosted its second panel discussion on the viability of rural charter schools at the B.B. King Museum here. Panelists included Jackie Mader of the Hechinger Report, Elyse Marcellino of Empower Mississippi, Rachel Canter of Mississippi First, Sunflower County Consolidated School District superintendent Miskia Davis, and Rep. Abe Hudson, D-Shelby. Watch the live stream below.

Canter addressed some common “misconceptions” the public has about how charter schools operate and who is eligible to attend them. Mississippi First is an education policy and research group that was heavily involved in drafting the state’s charter school law in 2013.

She noted that charter schools in Mississippi are free public schools that cannot turn away students based on race, academic ability, disability, or any other factor. If a student lives in a C, D, or F-rated school district and wants to attend a charter school, the school must accept them if there is room, she said.

Canter also noted the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, which oversees charter schools in the state, is very strict about which applications are approved.

Only five charter schools have been approved since the law was passed. In Jackson, ReImagine Prep, Midtown Public Charter School and Joel E. Smilow Prep each currently operate as middle schools. Clarksdale Collegiate Prep was recently approved to open in the 2018-19 school year, and Joel E. Smilow Collegiate is set to open as an elementary school next year as well.

“It is very, very difficult in Mississippi to get a charter,” she said.  “Our state law made it difficult on purpose because the responsibility to educate children is a tremendous responsibility. It’s one we should not take lightly and it’s one we should not just give to anybody who has an idea.”

But Davis, the superintendent, referred to charter schools as a “distraction.”

“They have not proven to outperform public schools, and they are just different,” she said. “Different does not always equate to better.”

Davis told the audience her consolidated school district is “fighting to keep doors open in our small schools,” and if charters come in and attract students some schools may be forced to close.

“Schools are the heartbeat of several of these communities so if we lose a school in essence the community slowly begins to die,” she said.

Additionally, when a student leaves a traditional public school for a charter school, their state funding follows them to the charter and the public district is forced to make due with less funding, she said.

“This is more so in my opinion a fight for the dollars than it is about our kids, and that bothers me,” Hudson said.

Davis said she struggles to recruit and retain teachers to come work in her rural Delta school district as is, and if a charter were to open that task would become even more difficult.

“If charter schools are in our community they serve as a competitor not only for our financial resources but for our human resources as well, because you have to have teachers to teach children,” Davis said.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Panelists discuss rural charter schools in Mississippi Wednesday, Nov. 15 in Indianola.

Although they adhere to the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public school, the charter model allows teachers and administrators more flexibility in student instruction.

Marcellino is the education policy director at Empower Mississippi, a school choice advocacy organization. Before she joined the organization, Marcellino taught for three years at a charter school in Atlanta.

She said as an educator, the charter school model was attractive because teachers “could have real flexibility and autonomy” in the school’s curriculum and other decisions.

Hudson said it was unfair that charter schools have so much flexibility in how they operate, but traditional public schools are held to rigid standards. The state should allow “districts of innovation” to give traditional districts more freedom in instruction, he said.

“I don’t think it’s fair that Delta schools in rural communities continue to get penalized if they are not successful, but you have these same districts (charters) that are being created to allow us to change public education,” Hudson said. “It seems like if you put them on the same playing field they’re given the same grade.”

When the Mississippi Department of Education released annual accountability grades in October, Reimagine and Smilow Prep each got a D grade for the 2016-17 school year. Midtown Public received an F. Sunflower County also received an F.

Canter acknowledged the charter schools do not have very good achievement right now..

“Their growth is much better than their achievement — that’s very similar to many of the school districts that are eligible for charter schools to locate in,” Canter said. “The difference here is if those charter schools do not meet that burden, if they cannot get those kids from the low level they came in to the high level, they will be permanently closed.”

When the authorizer board initially approves a charter, the school has a five year contract but can be shut down earlier for poor performance.

Davis responded, telling Canter public schools don’t have the luxury of waiting three to five years before the state intervenes. State law allows the Department of Education to take over a school district and place it into the Achievement School District if it receives an F for two consecutive years.

“The goal of charter schools is not to destroy traditional public schools, and if people are telling you that then you need to come and talk to charter school leaders in Jackson,” Canter said. “Because the goal is for every child to have the opportunity to go to an excellent public school.”

Mader is a reporter with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that covers education inequality and innovation across the country. Mader said nationwide, the topic of rural charters is often very controversial, but some communities have made them work to their advantage. Sixteen percent of all charter schools are rural, and they are often run by local communities instead of large charter operators, she said.

A separate panel hosted by Mississippi Today discussed the charter school issue in Clarksdale on Tuesday.