The state board that decides whether to grant permission for a charter school to open in Mississippi has been undeniably slow to embrace this experiment in improving public education.
More than a decade since Mississippi changed the law to take the power away from traditional public schools to veto competition, the board has been vetoing the majority of the applications.
It did so again Monday, rejecting all but one of the five applicants that made it the final stage of the application process.
Based on the accountability grades also released this week for all of Mississippi’s public school districts and schools, it’s hard to fault the state Charter Authorizer Board for being cautious.
The charter schools that already exist are not exactly “acing the test.”
Of the six existing charter schools that were assigned an accountability grade, none were given the lowest mark of an F on the A-to-F scale. That’s the good news. The bad news is that none of them have reached the level of A, and only one is a B. There were two C’s and three D’s, including Greenwood’s lone charter school, Leflore Legacy Academy.
If one considers anything less than a C as unacceptable, less than 19% of the state’s traditional public schools fell below that mark. For charter schools, though admittedly a small statistical sample, the rate was 50%. Not a ringing endorsement for the experiment, at least to date.
Charter school advocates will argue that the grading system does not take into account that they often start in the hole because the majority of students they serve come to them a grade level or more behind. They also say that rather than compare them to the state average, they should be compared against the other public schools in the communities they serve.
Both of those are fair points. In the Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District, only two of the nine elementary or junior high schools got a “passing” grade. The other seven were given grades of either D or F.
It must be remembered, however, that the whole rationale for charter schools is that they will exceed the low expectations that have plagued the state’s substandard school districts. If the charter schools aren’t able to do that, what is the point? In fact, a charter public school that cannot produce higher than normal academic results could arguably be doing more harm than good, since it takes tax dollars away from traditional schools without providing a model for improvement that traditional schools might emulate.
The main criticism on this round’s decisions by the Authorizer Board was its rejection of the application by an existing charter school operator in Clarksdale to open a second school. This would also have been the state’s first charter high school.
There were apparently two reasons for the hesitation of the majority of the board members. The application for the second school did not get the endorsement of the independent evaluator, and the existing school finished in the middle of the pack of the D-rated elementary schools. It would be difficult to claim its performance demonstrated that the operator was equipped to take on a second school in that community.
In theory, charter schools are a grand idea. They provide families, especially low-income families, with an affordable alternative for their children when the traditional public schools they’re stuck in are dysfunctional.
But charter schools have to be more than a grand idea. They have to live up to their promise. Until they do, it’s understandable why the state would still approach them cautiously.