PERRY/Charters good for business
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 12:00 AM
When Joel Bomgar talks about making a real and positive change in the community, he works in references to the vision of Steve Jobs at Apple. Jobs changed how the world uses computers, buys music, conducts mobile commerce; Bomgar wants to change how Mississippi provides public education to students. At least, he wants to give Mississippi parents and students additional options. He doesn't want to change the world (yet), just his small portion of it.
Bomgar developed a technology service while a student at Belhaven University. The business he created with his dorm mates, Bomgar Corporation, grew from a project fueled with empty pizza boxes to a multi-million dollar company servicing 6500 clients in less than ten years. In that time, Bomgar moved from a student to sit on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater.
"Bomgar's mission is to change the way work is done," begins the company's description on its web site. As Chairman of Better Education for Mississippi, Bomgar, the person, wants to change the way education is done.
Better Education for Mississippi - or Be4MS - is a new non-profit established by business leaders to advocate for strong charter schools laws. Members besides Bomgar include Hu Meena, President of C-Spire Wireless; Joe Sanderson, CEO of Sanderson Farms; Kelley Williams, former CEO of ChemFirst; Leland Speed, Chairman of EastGroup Properties; Dave Dennis, President of Specialty Contractors and more than a dozen other Mississippi business executives who believe, according to their mission statement, "better schools will provide our state a more educated workforce and more opportunities for our citizens to succeed."
Be4MS sent a letter to Mississippi state Senators and Representatives last week sharing the results of recent polling research on charter schools in the state. The letter expressed the need for school reform: "Last year our students again turned in the nation's worst ACT scores and, the year before, nearly eighty- percent of 4th graders had less than proficient reading skills Even in Mississippi school districts rated as 'B' and 'C', there are nearly fifty thousand (50,000) children in 'D' and 'F' schools. Let that sink in: even in our state's better school districts, nearly fifty thousand Mississippi school children attend schools that receive 'D' or worse ratings."
The Be4MS research polled 2500 Mississippians in December and found nearly 70 percent of Mississippians support public charter schools, including areas with strong schools like DeSoto County (66 percent) and Rankin County (70 percent).
The organization's letter is written in terms of a business mindset, "As business people, we know that accountability leads to success. In our world, if something isn't working, we have to change it or shut it down. If not, our customers will hold us accountable by taking their business elsewhere."
Charter schools uniquely fit that standard. When public charter schools fail, they shut down. But when traditional public schools fail, they continue and another cycle of children fail at education. That is where Mississippi students are today, were yesterday and will be again tomorrow unless reforms are enacted.
The letter calls for the enactment of charter school legislation which would permit charter schools "any place where Mississippi families demand them," which according to their data is a position supported by 65 percent of Mississippians. The group also wants an authorizing charter school board independent of the State Board of Education.
"Beginning now, all Mississippi families should be empowered to choose the school and education they believe best meet the needs of their children. These children are soon to become our workforce, our local leaders, and will shape the culture of the communities in which we each live and serve. If they are not prepared for life because of poor education, then our state's families and our children's opportunity to achieve their dreams will suffer," the letter states.
Charter schools legislation is a top priority for Republicans including Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Governor Phil Bryant. Legislation passed the Senate but died in the House Education Committee last session, on a vote of 15-16, aided in defeat by five Republicans: Forrest Hamilton, Pat Nelson and Wanda Jennings from DeSoto County, Tom Weathersby of Rankin County and Steve Massengill from Hickory Flat.
House Democrat Minority Leader Bobby Moak called the defeat of charter schools his party's biggest success of the 2012 session.
In October of last year, Nelson told the DeSoto County Republican Club meeting that according to Hamilton and Jennings, the vote on the committee had changed from 15-16 to 12-19 against charter schools. In November, Gunn moved charter school opponent Linda Whittington (D) off the committee and replaced her with Charles Busy (R) who supports charter schools.
Despite Nelson's claim, Republican leadership expects to pass charter school legislation this session. They will have business leaders like Bomgar and groups like Be4MS backing them up in those efforts.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.