Mississippi’s School Choice

Public education is the big topic at the Mississippi Capitol this legislative session, as it should always be. Mississippi’s future sits in those classrooms. The number of parents and other citizens paying attention to what goes on there is growing, and that is a good thing for the state. The public is following the debate on charter schools. Mississippians deserve to hear the debate and to have the opportunity to comment with their own views. They deserve open and transparent government, as well as legislators who listen to those views and incorporate them into their decisions and their votes.

“School choice” is the tagline of this year’s legislative session, with the number one topic being charter schools and passing a charter school bill.  There are mixed opinions around the state on school choice and charter schools. To be sure, there are those who are either proponents or opponents. There are other Mississippians who believe that having charter schools in Mississippi is potentially a good idea, but there are things they would like to see in place, in order to assure them the best chance of success. Then there is Governor Bryant’s idea about giving tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to scholarships for private school tuition for low income students in failing schools. Using any part of taxpayer money for private schools is something that taxpayers can’t afford and that state government should not be about.

When Mississippians’ money is going toward public charter schools, it seems reasonable to ask legislators to include some common sense provisions. Insisting on charter schools run by non-profits with a track record of success working with underperforming schools seems like a good starting point and an effective way to spend taxpayer funds. In addition, having charter schools only in underperforming school districts, as defined by the state’s accountability system, can offer a new option in those failing schools without taking funding from districts that are doing well. Why should those districts lose money when their schools are serving children successfully? As to the question of virtual, on-line schools, this is not a viable way to educate our children when the results of such schools have been dismal, and the funds can be used in more appropriate ways.

The problem with charter schools is not necessarily charter schools themselves. Having some good, sound, accountable charter schools in districts with failing schools may address specific needs and give parents another choice within the public school system. The problem is when charters – which educate a small fraction of the total number of students and have no more compelling results than traditional schools – are touted as the answer to every ill. Charter schools may fulfill the desire of some to begin overhauling the public education system, and they may be effective at making legislators feel good – but they are not the answer to the problems plaguing public education in Mississippi.

We should invest in efforts that lift up all schools and all children in the state, and there are proven ways to do this. Mississippi public schools deserve adequate funding to achieve what the state mandates. Mississippi’s children need quality early childhood learning. They also need quality teachers in every classroom and strong administrative leadership on every campus. In addition, our schools need a strong emphasis on engaging parents to support their children’s education.  Mississippi public schools have made some positive strides recently, and citizens should insist on more improvement. Every child in the state deserves the chance for a quality public education. Providing this kind of strong foundation for our public schools is a choice that is available to legislators, and this is the “school choice” Mississippi deserves.

Anne White Foster is Executive Director of Parents for Public Schools, National and attended Mississippi public schools. Her email address is afoster@parents4publicschools.org.