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Groups disagree about charter school legislation

Heather Applewhite

Sen. Gary Tollison introduced a bill to the Mississippi Senate this past week that would allow students to attend charter schools — both traditional and virtual.
Following the introduction of the bill, people voiced opposition, including many black Mississippians, according to Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Mike Sayer, senior organizer and training coordinator for Southern Echo, said his group firmly opposes charter schools.
“I am not a supporter of charter schools where there is no proven track record for the entrepreneur and no evidence that it will address the problems of the under-performing school,” he said.
Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said he supported anything that would improve the quality of education for children in the state, but he is not convinced that charter schools can achieve this goal.
“I don’t have enough information to measure good or bad,” Johnson said. “Our position is we believe there should be quality education for our children, and that any institution that’s going to provide that should be held to the same standards.”
Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, said her group supported charter school legislation.
“We support high-quality charter schools in the state of Mississippi, and we are supporting charter legislation as it works its way through the Mississippi Capitol,” she said.
Canter said she thinks charter schools could help provide a higher quality of education to students in the state.
“We believe that charter schools can open opportunities for public school students who are not being served well in their current public schools to be able to go to schools that will be better able to meet their needs,” she said. “We’re very supportive.”
Canter acknowledged some of the fears other groups have concerning charter schools, but she said she hoped that once the bill was released, some of these fears would be assuaged.  
One of the concerns Southern Echo has is the possibility of charter schools inadvertently leading to segregation.
Canter said she believes the language in the bill will prevent this from happening.
“It will make sure that kids have equal opportunities to attend charter schools, that they are targeted toward areas that most need school options, that there’s not discrimination (and) that they follow all civil rights laws,” she said.
Sayer said he disagrees.
“What you’re going to have are charter schools which are designed to provide an escape for white students to get away from majority black, traditional public schools because they’ll be able to set up regional charter schools,” he said.
The NAACP does not think the bill goes far enough to ensure that all students benefit from the schools.
“There is nothing in the bill to indicate that it will be in the best interest of providing quality education for all children,” Johnson said.
Another concern is how funding such charter schools will impact funding for public schools.
Sayer said funding charter schools will leave traditional public schools with less money.  
“It opens up the state to private entrepreneurs to battle traditional public schools for massive amounts of public funding for public education,” he said.
Sayer also said that many under-performing public schools are already underfunded, according to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula.
When reviewed a year ago, the formula was deemed insufficient to provide the quality of education that students deserve. Since 2009, the program has been underfunded.
Under Gov. Phil Bryant’s budget, the program will be underfunded by more than $300 million, Sayer said. He said charter schools would cause traditional public schools to be even more underfunded because the money will follow students if they decide to go to a charter school in a different district.
Both Sayer and Johnson take issue with the fact that charter schools can be built anywhere in the state.
Canter recognized this as a part of the bill with which she believed many entities would have a problem. She predicted that the debate would be centered around whether charter schools should be built in high-performing districts or only low-performing districts.
Sayer and Johnson said they do not think charter schools should be built in high-performing districts.
“It does not provide for confining the charter schools to remedying the problems in persistently under-performing or failing school districts,” Sayer said.
Johnson used the Oxford School District as an example. He categorized the Oxford district as a high-performing district.  
Johnson said that it would make no sense for funding to be taken from high-performing public schools in Oxford to fund charter schools that may or may not provide the same quality of education.  
The bill also allows for the possible creation of virtual charter schools.
Johnson said virtual charter schools would take money from traditional public schools and send it to companies outside of the state. He also said they would be detrimental to the state economically and that the performance of virtual charter schools is worse than any other form of education in the country.
“Quality education should come before corporate profit,” Johnson said.
Sayer said he thinks charter schools would fail to provide a quality education to students.
“The record of virtual charter school is horrendous in terms of under-performing traditional public schools,” he said.
Canter took a different view on virtual charter schools.
“I think that digital learning and virtual learning are here to stay,” she said. “The question is, ‘Is there a way to put in the bill to make sure that virtual school providers have to meet rigorous standards and that they are held accountable for the education they provide?’ so an outright prohibition on virtual schools, I think, is probably not the best way to go about it.”
Canter said virtual schooling was already in Mississippi to an extent.
“We already have virtual courses in Mississippi, and we want to make sure that we’re providing opportunity to kids who need it, especially if for whatever reason it’s hard for them to get to a brick-and-mortar school every day,” she said.
Sayer said statements claiming that Mississippi already had virtual charter schools were misleading.
“We have virtual courses, but we don’t have cyberspace degrees,” he said. “We don’t have cyberspace schools.”
The Mississippi Senate will vote on the charter schools bill this morning.