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Desoto Says No To Charter Schools

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 02 Apr 2012 06:51am | comments
Charter schools get a no from Desoto legislators, leaving the bill with an uncertain future. Photo by Comedy Nose via Flikr.

Charter school legislation is at a standstill.   Charter schools are a major legislative agenda item of the Mississippi Republican Party, which holds a majority in the state House of Representatives.  But, ironically, it appears to be a handful of Republicans who have put the bill in jeopardy.   Three of the five breakaway Republicans are representatives of Desoto County, home to one of the wealthiest and the largest school district in the state – which has some alleging that powerful local school officials are influencing statewide law.  From Desoto, MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson, reports.

Just across the border of metro Memphis, Desoto County is home to schools that attract families across state lines.  In 2008, during the period of peak expansion, an average of ten families made the move to Desoto every day. The rapidly growing community has voted in favor of raising taxes to support their schools, and there is a sense of local commitment to each classroom – classrooms such as Christy Campbell’s.

During a class visit, Campbell is teaching her second grade class at Hernando Hill Elementary about rounding to the nearest ten, and these kids have the rule down pat.  When asked what to do, the students respond in unison.

“Look at the number to the right,” says the class. “Is it five or greater? No.  So the tens stay same and everything after becomes zero.”

Test scores confirm Desoto students know their lessons: they typically outperform the state average by double digits.  Under current charter school legislation, it’s one of 82 districts that would have the power to veto any charter school proposal that planned to set-up in their area.

That doesn’t stop residents from being leery.  Kevin Doddridge has two kids in the Desoto school system.  He’s in favor of charters school coming to Mississippi, even in Desoto. But, he says he’s had trouble drumming up support from other residents.

“The school district in Desoto County is so successful right now,” says Doddridge. “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.”

Desoto’s State House Representatives have taken note of the community’s uneasiness.  Three sit on the on the 31-member House Education Committee, and all three say if  the current charter school legislation comes up for vote, they’ll break with  Republican solidarity and vote no.    Pat Nelson is one of them. He’s  a self-proclaimed charter school supporter who says the bill needs to do more to protect successful schools.

“I’m not opposed to charter schools,” says Nelson. “I just don’t want us to step off into the deep water.  Yes it bothers me that we aren’t going to have a pilot program this year without this bill.  But this state is coming up on the 200th year without charter schools: We can wait six more months.”

Nelson says even though he’s taking a stance that’s unpopular among his Republican colleagues, he’s gotten a lot of support messages from his constituents.  He played some from his answering machine.

“Mr. Nelson, for public schools is Desoto County and Mississippi,” records one constituent, “I will vote for you.”

But 200 miles south, the potential death of the bill is hard for charter school supporters to swallow, especially those from the TEA party.  Keith Plunkett, a blogger and communications strategist for conservative causes, says Desoto representatives are putting the wishes of one powerful local school system ahead of the needs of the rest of the state.

“I think you have to understand the history with Superintendent Kuykendall up there,” says Plunkett. “He wields a pretty heavy hammer.  Any perceived threat to government schooling; you can look for him to be on the other side of it, pushing back.”

Desoto Superintendent Milton Kuykendall an elected superintendent, a position that is by nature political, and as head of the largest employer in town, he and a board oversee 3,500 jobs. He pays attention too and can rattle off the names of every major player in Mississippi education policy.

Kuykendall is dead set against charter schools.

“I thought this was America,” he says. “I thought that I would be allowed to give my opinion.”

I ask him, “Do you feel they don’t think traditional schools don’t have voice in this legislation?”

“I think the naysayers do not want me or any other superintendent to give our opinion,” says Kuykendall.

Kuykendall is not an anomaly.  An overwhelming majority of superintendents in Mississippi do not support charter schools. This is not a shock to charter school supporters who say step one in school reform is disrupting the established system superintendents like Kuykendall oversee.

While some charter school advocates say Kuykendall and others are trying hold onto money and power, Kuykendall says the same could be said for the charters supporters.

“This thing is lobby-driven a great deal,” says Kuykendall. ”I think money is a big part of it, and I see this as an issue.”

Time is of the essence. If the House Education Committee does not take up the2012 charter school bill by the end of the day Tuesday, it will die.  Right now, Republican sponsors don’t have the votes to get it passed, and tensions are high.  And as the pressure mounts, representatives from both sides of the table are saying that ironically it is because conservatives are taking a more conservative approach to charters than anyone expected

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Charter schools get a no from Desoto legislators, leaving the bill with an uncertain future. Photo by Comedy Nose via Flikr.


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