Superintendents air charter concerns
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 12:00 AM
Area superintendents said last week that while they don't oppose public charter schools in Mississippi, they have concerns about a number of issues including accountability standards and how a chronically failing or under performing school would be defined in the proposed legislation.
They also voiced support for mandatory kindergarten, which is gaining momentum in the state legislature.
Dr. Terry Larabee, superintendent of the Philadelphia Public School District, and Tommy Dearing, superintendent of the Neshoba County Public School District, hope legislators take their time when it comes to charter school legislation.
"What's the hurry?" Larabee asked. "My biggest concern is they are pushing too fast in this legislative session."
Larabee wants to ensure that charter schools can't "cherry pick students" and not accept those with special needs or with disciplinary issues.
"I also want to make sure those students in charter schools are held to the same accountability standards as students in public schools. I'm also concerned about how they will define chronically failing or under performing schools."
The Mississippi Association of School Superintendents would like for charter schools to be under the control of the state Board of Education.
Larabee and Dearing would also like to see pilots in several diverse districts prior to full implementation statewide.
Dr. Sam Bounds, MASS executive director, said Friday that all charter schools should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.
"MASS's position has never been against charter schools," Bounds said. "We feel like charter schools could be beneficial in areas where they are needed. It needs to be a tool in the toolbox. It does not need to be the whole toolbox. Our position is that in the schools and/or districts that are chronically under performing, we need to give them another opportunity."
Bounds said Mississippi's accountability system for public schools is currently the 10th strongest in the nation.
He said the number of Star schools increased from 65 to 80 over the past year. High Performing schools rose from 181 to 213.
"Today there are 293 schools rated Star or High Performing, which is up from 175. So we are doing better. We know there are some areas in this state, some schools and districts, that probably need some option but the whole state doesn't."
Larabee and Dearing are also concerned that charter schools could drain money from public school districts.
Should students leave their districts and enroll in a charter school in an adjoining county their state allocated funds as well as the local ad valorem tax monies would go with them, they said.
Bounds, Larabee and Dearing also support mandatory kindergarten.
The state's public schools have been required to offer kindergarten under the Education Reform Act of 1982, but attendance is not required.
Once that is passed, superintendents would like to see a push for mandatory pre-kindergarten.
While his district offers both kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, Larabee said attendance is not mandatory.
Despite that, Larabee said at times a parent will enroll a 6-year-old in first grade without any previous education.
"They are not ready," Larabee said, "and it's impossible to have all of them ready if kindergarten is not mandatory in the state."
Republican state Sen. Giles Ward of Louisville said earlier this month hat education would be the Legislature's single, highest priority in 2013 with an ongoing push by proponents for charter schools.
Ward, who represents District 18, said he had seen enough data to show that charter schools might be a viable option to improve education in Mississippi.
"There's enough evidence to try," he said.
A year ago, even some opponents of charter schools expected a bill to pass. But some majority Republicans balked, killing the bill in the House.
So proponents redoubled their efforts, trying to build support for widening the rules that allow alternative public schools run by outside groups.
"I believe a large majority of Mississippians support public charter schools, and I think an overwhelming majority of Republican Party voters support charter schools," said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has been among the lead proponents for changes in school structure. Gov. Phil Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn - both Republicans - also back charters.
"It's not going to be the end-all, save-all, every child that's failing won't have to worry now, charter schools are here," Bryant said. "But it will be a help. And I think anything that can help, we need to explore."
Ward said education was "just adequate" in certain areas of Mississippi.
"We only have one opportunity for this, once a student reaches the age of 18 we can't send them back," he said.
Republican Rep. C. Scott Bounds of District 44 said he would examine any charter school bills closely.
"There are a lot of good things to it but I have some questions," he said.
The idea behind charter schools is that new managers promise high academic performance in exchange for freedom from many rules governing regular public schools.