Charter schools are on the verge of coming to Mississippi, but opponents including African American community leaders say charters will cause greater inequality in education and increased segregation in a state with a history racial division. 

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Many Black Mississippians Oppose Charter Schools

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 30 Jan 2012 12:20pm | comments
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Charter schools are on the verge of coming to Mississippi, but opponents including African American community leaders say charters will cause greater inequality in education and increased segregation in a state with a history racial division. Organizations such as the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and Southern Echo, a black leadership group, have come out against the charter-school movement.  But MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter Annie Gilbertson reports the concerns of some black organizers may not be enough to halt the legislature's move to expand state’s charter school policy.

 

 

 

The Mississippi Delta is home to some of the poorest schools in America and 90 percent of public school students in this region are black. State investment is among the lowest in the country, so money is very tight, and many of the schools are labeled as failing under federal standards.

While the situation may appear bleak to many, charter school supporters say the competition fostered by charters will help turn things around.  Not everyone is convinced that argument has merit. Sunflower County community organizer Gloria Dickerson says she questions why among the many improvements that could be made to education, lawmakers are making expanding charter school laws a top priority.

Dickerson: "It’s like what are they trying to do to our kids now? And why is it so important? Why is it so important?"

Dickerson says historically, many Mississippi politicians have done little to eradicate inequality in the public school system.  So she says when white, conservative policymakers suddenly took up charter schools and called it a solution for black educational shortcomings, she was suspicious.

Dickerson: "The history and everything that goes into schools has been [informed] by the white power structure and they are going to do what’s best for their kids. That’s why people are suspicious."

Dickerson admits her community doesn't have a good understanding of exactly how charter schools would operate.  And that confusion has led to rumors, many of which are implausible or legally impossible, such as private schools having the ability to convert to publicly-funded charters and allow only white students to attend.   Dickerson says the rumors stem from the fact that many, though not all, charter school advocacy groups also campaign for private school vouchers and decreased public spending.

Forest Thigpen is director of one such policy group. He says not all black communities are suspicious of the charter school agenda.

Thigpen: "A lot of the support that we see for other types of school choice comes from low-income minorities who are stuck in their public schools with no options."

Thigpen's group, The Mississippi Center for Public Policy, does have the support of the national organization Black Alliance for Educational Options.  And charter school policy overall is supported by some members of the black caucus in the state legislature.  On the other hand, legislation enabling charter schools has failed many times in the Mississippi House which for a century was dominated by Democrats – the political party of choice for a large majority of black Mississippians. The Mississippi NAACP has also come out against charter schools.

Michael Sayer of the black leadership organization Southern Echo says many black Mississippians take issue with charter schools because when seats are limited, schools open up a lottery.

Sayer: "The premise of a lottery is that some get to go and some do not."

To him, the very practice of lotteries is unfair and creates inequality.

Sayer: "What we really need is to put the funding into the situation which enables all children to get the quality of education to which they are entitled." 

Sayer also quotes studies such as an often-cited report from the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, which found that Twin Cities charter schools intensified segregation.  Sayer says the same could happen in Mississippi schools.

Moore: "Well technically, a lot of them are already re-segregated."

John Moore is Chairman of the House Education Committee disagrees that charter schools will result in further segregation.  He argues many of Mississippi's Delta schools are already more than90 percent black and qualify for free and reduced lunch and that white students in this area typically go to private school.

Moore: "But that fear, I don’t know who promotes that fear or who dreams it up, but the facts, I think, will present the opposite."

Moore is examining the facts now and stresses that carefully crafted policy can prevent Mississippi kids of all races from being subjected to further academic failure.  So his education team has called in some experts.  Last week, a hearing on charter schools was held by the joint House and Senate education committees.  Several policy groups spoke in favor of expanding Mississippi charter school law.But no organization opposing charter schools, black or white, was invited to speak.

While many black organizers remain in opposition, several bills written to expand charter school law are expected to be submitted before the Mid-February deadline.

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