Questions linger over the need for charter schools in Mississippi as state lawmakers prepare for the upcoming legislative session.
Supporters believe that at the very least, parents of children in failing public school districts should be given a choice for their children. Those opposed to charter schools say the answer lies in the state’s commitment to fully fund education.
Alvin Taylor, superintendent of the Meridian Public School District is opposed to charter schools, because he believes the focus should be on improving existing schools.
"There's one major reason I can't support charter schools," Taylor said. "The thing that makes our country great, other than our civil liberties, is our public education system. We have a public education system designed to where we educate all of our citizens. That's what makes America so great is that all of our kids, no matter their economic background, their racial background, their religious preference or if they need special services or not — every single child is afforded the right to receive an equitable education. That's what keeps us great as a country."
He says charter schools fly against that whole premise.
“They select their students on whatever agenda they want, whatever platform they have, they set up their school to attract a certain type of student,” Taylor said. “By doing that they exclude others, whether they're going to exclude kids of poverty or whether they're going to exclude kids with special needs or if they're going to exclude kids because of religion or political or racial backgrounds, that's not the American way. The American way is to educate all of our kids so that all of our kids have a chance to succeed in this country."
Taylor said he believes the state should support its existing schools and in cases where the district is failing, make a change.
"You already have schools. If a community has a school system that's not working, then I'm going to say, as a superintendent, as a school leader, the problem is not the school, the problem lies with your leadership and your teachers — not the kids, So opening up a different school and taking those same teachers and leaders and putting them in a different school is not going to help the situation. Instead of going and getting a new school, get new educators. That will help your schools."
It starts at the top, he said. Good teachers can’t perform well without good principals.
"If you get those things in place, you don't need a charter school."
Randy Hodges, superintendent of schools for Lauderdale County School District, agrees. It’s not that he is opposed to charter schools, he said, but he is for existing public schools..
“I have too many concerns at this point to do anything to take away from positive improvement for public schools,” Hodges said. “Research does not support charter schools success. We're dealing with what's best for all kids. We've got to look at that."
Under charter school proposals, funding would “follow” the student from the traditional public school to the charter school. That worries Hodges.
“I'm concerned that if we're having trouble funding education as it needs to be at present and then we add another concept, then the challenge of funding may be even greater,” Hodges said. “I'm concerned that we look at the possibility of a private company managing students and what's best for them when they are making a profit. I don't see how we can always be looking, day after day, for the best interest of the child, if that's the case. If the private company is for profit.”
If the state does move forward with a plan for charter schools, Hodges said educators, including teachers, principals, parents and superintendents should have a say in the matter.
"We need to be involved in the process in a big way," Hodges said.
Educators should help put together the concept and the way it would be structured and managed, he said. "My responsibility is to support public education and make sure all children are given a good education. I want to know that it's going to benefit all children."
Like Taylor, Hodges said he believes the answer is in good leadership.
"I think we need to focus on what really makes the difference and that's the classroom teacher. We have an outstanding school district because we have outstanding teachers that we put before that child 180 days out of the year. That's what makes the difference. I think we need to be focusing on teacher pay raises, rewarding outstanding teachers and teachers that are performing at the level that we are."
The solution is simple, he said.
“Those schools that are performing at a high level have outstanding teachers. They are that important. They are the difference. They are the answer,” Hodges said. “You can complicate it if you want to. It's simple, in my opinion. Good teachers, good schools.”
Hodges recalled the difference made by the Education Reform Act of 1982, under the leadership of Gov. William Winter. The bill provided kindergarten classes for Mississippi's school children.
"That was education reform. That made a difference. If we learn from that, what would be the next step,” Hodges said. “My personal opinion is that the next step would be for us to look at early childhood development. Let's look at Pre-K for all children in this state who need it."
Pre-K would be for children four years old who need it, he said.
“You have many children in this state that are at a disadvantage. We're speaking of poverty. They don't have a computer at home, necessarily. They do not necessarily have someone that's going to read to them each night,” he said. “They do not get to travel and learn and have positive experiences from travel. Those children start at a disadvantage and it affects academic performance. It affects our drop-out rate, it affects us in so many ways. If we're going to reform, we should focus on early childhood development for all children who need it."
State Sen. Videt Carmichael said he does not oppose charter schools, but his support of any legislation will depend upon how the bill is worded.
“I think it’s just another tool, so to speak, so we could allow children to have a choice to get the best education possible,” Carmichael said. “I really think charter schools need to be tested in low-performing school districts and make sure they have a proven track record of operating charter schools.”
State Sen. Terry Burton said he has supported charter school legislation in the past, but he too wants to see the precise wording of a bill before he makes up his mind.
“Charter schools should be an option,” Burton said. “Parents should be able to go out and take charge of their childrens’ education if the schools they are currently attending are failing and have a history of failing. Children need that option.”
State Sen. Sampson Jackson said in general, he is opposed to charter schools, but if the state is going to have them, they should only be in failing school districts.
“I think that schools that are in terrible shape, if we are going to have it, that’s where they should be. It shouldn’t be every district,” Jackson said.
Accountability is vital as well, he said.
“I don’t think you just need to put money in there,” Jackson said. “You need to have accountability and you need to have a plan for how you’re going to do it.”
Meridian Public School District school board member Michael Van Veckhoven said people who say the state’s education system is broken are not looking at the big picture.
“Look at all the successful individuals that our public schools have produced over the years,” Van Veckhoven said. “We’re not perfect by any means, but to say that this system is broken and needs to be thrown out is just not accurate.”
He said the current system should be improved, not dismantled.
“I feel that what we’re essentially talking about when we’re talking about charter schools,” he said, “is the creation of separate schools and school districts that are separate and unequal. There was a time in this state when we had two separate public school systems. One was better off than the other one. I fear that when we talk about charter schools, we’re going down that road again. I’m very hesitant to open the door at all.”
Change and innovation is necessary, he said, but that is already ongoing in classrooms across the state. Meridian is a good example of what happens when a community takes ownership of its public schools, he said.
“When you talk about performance, it’s about leadership and who is in charge,” he said. “If the community demands strong leadership in their public schools, sooner or later they’ll get it. If you have an apathetic community that has abandoned its public schools, then you’ll get mediocrity.”
Make all public schools strong, he said, instead of adding charter schools.
Editor's note: This article is the second of a two part series on charter school proposals. The first part was published Sunday, Dec. 30, and can be found on our website www.meridianstar.com.