Charter Schools — Yes or No?

Can “charter” or “innovative” schools save the day?

The Legislature has been pondering this question.

Most states, 39, have charter school laws. Mississippi had one, but it expired. Despite Senate support, the House balked at renewing the law…until this year.

Earlier this week the House passed a bill to allow “innovative schools.” Reads like a charter school bill to me.

House activity responds to President Barak Obama’s $4.3 billon “Race to the Top” plan. It provides incentives for states to experiment with new types of schools to improve learning. Neighbors Louisiana and Tennessee are among 15 states getting first crack at the money. Alabama applied; Mississippi and eight others did not.

The focus of the President’s plan…and the House approach…is to “turn around our lowest-performing schools.” The House would let parents with children at low-performing schools petition the State Board of Education to convert them to “innovative schools” outside the control of local school boards.

The Senate approach is broader. It would revive the old, complex law that allows school districts to convert schools to charter status. Alternatively, it would allow “eligible entities” to petition for open-enrollment charter schools outside the control of local school boards and unrestricted by school district lines. Colleges, local governments, and non-sectarian non-profits could apply.

The nitty gritty is both bills give frustrated parents a way to take over or create schools. But these parent-led schools will still have to meet the same standards and achievement levels the old schools did and operate under the oversight of the State Board of Education.

The main change will be in local management and control.

Seven years ago the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State collaborated with the Meridian School Board and interested citizens on a charter school idea. Planning funds came from the U.S. Department of Education and the Phil Hardin Foundation. Visits were made to charter schools in Arizona, Texas, and Georgia. Detailed research was conducted to determine why some charter schools succeed and others do not.

Dedicated leadership, innovative teaching, and focused programs most often resulted in success. Examples of such program focus included specific learning styles, major economic engines, and high academic standards.

Giving management and control to parents is only a small step in this direction. The State Board would have to take giant steps to move further.

And, none of this assures success. In Arizona, king of charter schools with 500, failing and so-so charter schools far outnumber good ones.

Meridian looked hard but chose not to step into such uncertain waters. Will the Legislature pass legislation to give parents a choice? Should it?

The price of innovation is uncertainty.

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