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What Happened To Charter Schools?

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 02 May 2012 05:52pm | comments
Charter school legislation is dead for the year. Photo via Flickr by Max Wolfe.

Mississippi won't see a new charter school law this session. Lawmakers failed to meet a deadline earlier this week to file a compromise bill. Baring a special session, charter school legislation is dead for the year... so what caused to stall and eventually fail? MPB's Southern Education reporter Annie Gilbertson teams up with MPB's Capitol Reporter Jeffrey Hess for a charter school legislation recap.

Gilbertson: Today, we want to address the elephant in the room – that’s right, what happened to the Republican charter school initiative!  In case you are still a little fuzzy on what a charter school is, it’s a public school that is run by an organization instead of the government.

Hess : Public money, outside management. So it is like subcontracting, which happens a lot in government .  Park maintenance, payroll, it varies from place to place.

Gilbertson: And most states have charter schools – though success has been mixed. The movement has exploded over the last decade and now charter school expansion is a staple in the education debate.  This year Republicans in Mississippi were pushing it hard, but the after the death of two bills and one revival, a deadline passed without the House and Senate reaching a compromise.

Hess:  What happened? I want to take us back to the start of the session. Expanding Mississippi’s charter school law seemed like it would be one of the first high profile achievements of the new Republican majority.  Speaker Philip Gunn took up the reigns with enormous enthusiasm.

Gunn:  "After a hundred years of Democratic control we are pleased to announce to today that Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives."

Crowd: (shouts and cheers)

Gilbertson: Such excitement.

Hess:Excitement and confidence.  But the majority control was won by very slim margins.

Gilbertson: How slim?

Hess:  A few thousand votes out of the 800 thousand cast.

Gilbertson:  So what if it’s slim? There is still a majority.

Hess: And that is a huge power gain.  But what I’m trying to point out is the politics of voters only shifted slightly.  So on the inside of capitol walls, there was a huge swing toward Republican power.  But on the outside, constituents were still leery of certain agenda items such as charter schools.  And it was a tough vote for lawmakers who didn’t know what would come of their districts after this year’s redistricting. Remember the Desoto County Republican breakaway? 

Gilbertson: Oh, I remember the breakaway! Desoto legislators said people in their districts did not want charter schools to interfere with their successful schools.   At the time, the bill was in the House education committee and support and opposition were neck and neck.  Republicans stalled a vote four times in two days! I went up to Desoto, and Kevin Doddridge, a public school parent, said he was in favor of charter schools, but had trouble drumming up support.

Doddridge: "The school district in Desoto County is so successful right now. It’s successful in terms of academics, graduation rates, the overall experience, you know.  You have to be little leery of something that would change that formula somewhat.”

Gilbertson: And that attachment to local schools can be found in many parts of the state - even if the schools are failing.

Hess: But many conservatives, say that has less to do with attachment to local schools, and more to do with school administration not wanting to share its cash with new charter schools. Here’s John Moore, a charter school supporter and chair of the House Education Committee, after the bill got shot down.

Moore: "It’s all about the money.  In a lot of school districts, it has absolutely nothing to do with education.  It’s about who controls the flow billions of dollars. Plain and simple. There is no other logical reason."

Gilbertson: That’s one position, but others say there are many reasons charter schools didn’t work out. Many parents I’ve talked to throughout the state are still unsure about charter schools.  Rep. Moore does point to the enormous amount of special interest groups involved, including school districts and  education professional associations.  But on the other side, there are charter school organizations and school software companies plowing resources into the capitol.  Even education-power-house families such as the Barksdales and Waltons were underwriters of charter school lobbing groups in Mississippi.

Hess: And here’s another reason.  A lot of that energy and money poured into the capitol.  But  a lot of regular folks still may not be sure what a charter school even is.  And at the end, a lot of charter school supporters are saying the message really deteriorated, causing the issue to become even murkier. The charter school talking points seem to have shifted from the language of “choice” and “reform” to pointing fingers.

Gilbertson:  But, there is a chance we haven’t seen the end of charter schools.  Governor Bryant has said he’ll call a special session around the issue if there’s support – though getting that support is pretty unlikely at this point.

Hess: But that’s not the last shot for charter schools! The Republican majority isn’t going anywhere. And,  if charter school proponents want to build support throughout the state, they’ll have allies in capitol for another 3 years.

Hess: For MPB News, I’m Jeffrey Hess. 

Gilbertson: And, from MPB’s Southern Education Desk, I’m Annie Gilbertson.


Charter school legislation is dead for the year. Photo via Flickr by Max Wolfe.



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