With charter-school applications repeatedly being denied, it’s time to overhaul the approval process.
Last week, Mississippi’s Charter School Authorizer Board was doing what it does best: saying “no” to people applying to set up new charter schools. In the most recent batch, four out of five applications were rejected. This included, bizarrely, a request from an already successful school in Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta, to expand by opening a high school.
You might think that a Charter School Authorizer Board would be in the business of approving at least some new applications. Not, it seems, in our state, where the board has been cheerfully rejecting new applications for years.
It is now over a decade since the Mississippi Center for Public Policy helped pass legislation to allow more charter schools. After all that time, we have only eight charter schools in the entire state. Georgia has more than ten times that number. South Carolina has more than 70. Neighboring Arkansas (whose population is about the same as Mississippi’s) has 50, and Louisiana has 143.
Is the quality of applications in our state that much worse than in those other states, or is the political self-interest of the public-education establishment more entrenched here?
In its own defense, the Charter School Authorizer Board might say that it has a duty to reject any suboptimal applications since that might mean allowing suboptimal charter schools to exist. To this one might reply by asking whether the board is aware of how suboptimal some existing non-charter schools are. To reject charter-school start-ups because they are not perfect is absurd.
Thanks to public-education protectionism in Mississippi, the board will not even consider applications for new schools unless they are from districts given a grade of F by the state department of education (which makes assessments based on such factors as test scores and graduation rates). Saying no to charter-school applications in districts consistently given low grades means consigning those children to poorly performing schools. Besides, shouldn’t it be up to parents to decide if a charter school is good enough? Right now, Mississippi’s eight charter schools are heavily oversubscribed, suggesting that parents vastly prefer charter schools to the existing public-school alternatives.
It has also become clear that the old education order in Mississippi is unwilling to allow more than a token number of charter schools in our state, and certainly not enough so that they might compete against the self-serving education bureaucracy.
What is to be done?
Changes around the edges won’t be enough. The role of the Authorizer Board needs to change. First, the process for approving or rejecting needs to be done transparently, on the basis of objective, clearly stated criteria. Second, the Authorizer Board should be redirected to focus on granting broad approval to organizations wanting to set up and run charter schools; its approval should not be required for each individual proposal. And third, although it certainly should not be necessary to obtain the Authorizer Board’s approval for changes in the way existing charter schools are being run, as is currently the case, once the board gives would-be charter-school operators broad approval to set up and run the schools, those providers ought to be free to get on with doing so as, in effect, licensed charter-school operators in the state.
Perhaps even more radically, the Charter School Authorizer Board needs to lose its monopoly on approving applications. As has happened in other states, alternative institutions — such as public universities — ought to be granted the authority to approve them. Having multiple authorizers would prevent a public-sector monopoly from stifling innovation.
Charter schools in states that allow far more of them come in all shapes and sizes. Some are stand-alone schools; others are part of what is in effect a chain. The providers of charter-school education gain invaluable experience from running the schools. The Mississippi Authorizer Board, on the other hand, has none.
Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.