By JEFF AMY
JACKSON — With even opponents conceding that a bill expanding charter schools in Mississippi is likely to pass, lawmakers are trying to hash out what a new law should cover.
The alternative public schools promise high academic performance in exchange for freedom from rules governing regular public schools. Witnesses told House and Senate members Thursday that rules for charter schools in Mississippi could determine whether they succeed.
“We find states with poorly written laws have poorly performing charter schools,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, which studies education reform efforts.
Among issues raised at a hearing is whether the Mississippi Department of Education or some other body should approve new charter schools and review their performance. Also under discussion is whether charter schools should only be allowed in areas where current schools are underperforming, whether the number of charter schools statewide should be limited and how much state money a charter school should get.
Among those who spoke to a joint meeting of the Senate and House Education committees was Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Schools. KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, is a nationwide network of charter schools aimed at poor and minority communities. The Delta pod has schools in Helena-West Helena, Ark. and Blytheville, Ark.
“We believe, despite the economic limitations of any family, a child can succeed. The key tenet is no excuses,” Shirey said. “Far too often, in today’s society, we make excuses for poor performance because of a child’s home circumstances.”
Shirey said that KIPP would be interested in coming to Mississippi, but only if it could start its own school instead of taking over an existing school.
Right now, Mississippi law doesn’t contemplate new charter schools, only conversions of existing schools that don’t meet state standards for three years in row. State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham reminded lawmakers that as many as 82 schools could become eligible for conversions after the end of this school year, if a majority of parents at a school seek that option.
Burnham said the state board doesn’t oppose amending the law to allow new schools, but it would like to be the agency that authorizes charters, after input from a local school board. He also recommended:
— Requiring charter schools to submit to the same testing and rating system used for regular public schools.
–“Very manageable caps” on the initial number of charter schools. He later said a number similar to the 30-plus that Arkansas has would be good.
— A three-year charter term followed by strict standards on closing down charters that don’t make the grade.
— Preference be given to agencies that have track records of success elsewhere.
Several speakers said charter schools should only be allowed in areas now served by failing schools.
“We need to make those investments where they will really make a difference in student achievement,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, which lobbies lawmakers to support public schools.
Forest Thigpen, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said children should be allowed to cross district lines to attend charter schools and that charter schools should be allowed anywhere in the state.
“Even though I’m in a good school district, my son would have done better in a smaller setting and I should have had that option,” Thigpen said. “We believe it’s fundamentally wrong for the government to tell you that you must send your child to a school that doesn’t meet their needs.”
David Hansen, senior adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, advised lawmakers to not give control to the Mississippi Department of Education, but instead create a separate authorizing board, as in some other states. He said traditional educators may resist innovative proposals.
“The people who oversee traditional schools are not wired the same way as is needed to oversee charter schools,” he said. “Charter schools are all about innovation.”
House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said after the hearing he agreed with Hansen’s call for a separate board. He also said he’d like to see charter schools statewide, “but I’m not going to fight that to the bitter end.”
Finally, lawmakers will have to consider how much state money should go to charter schools. Loome noted in a written presentation that lawmakers could end up writing a bill that would guarantee more state money to charter schools than to local schools, since local schools are expected to contribute their own tax money.
“We haven’t even fully funded (education) and now you’ve got charter schools that may take away some of that revenue,” said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.
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