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School Choice in Mississippi: Would Public Charter Schools Help?

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I've been talking about school choice this week and how it applies to my home state of Mississippi, a state with very limited "choice" options in comparison to other places in the country. Two weeks ago Education Week gave public schools in Mississippi an "F" in student achievement and a "D" in likely student success in its annual Quality Counts report. This week is National School Choice week and there were official "whistle stop" events held in Jackson and Birmingham that saw educators, reformers, politicians, students and parents in attendance - all in support of greater school choice options in the state of Mississippi.

It has me thinking about the role of school choice in Mississippi and if more options would help students - or if cultural issues like poverty are the true core of the problem and deserve all the attention.

When the topic of school choice comes up, public charter schools are usually at the forefront of the conversation. Right now Mississippi has a charter school law in name only. Since it went into effect in 2010, exactly zero public charter schools have opened - serving zero students. Critics have questioned the intention of the charter school law in the first place that seemed more of a ploy to secure Race to the Top funds than to actually put charter schools into place. So for all intents and purposes, Mississippi does not have public charters schools even though they are not outlawed.

What would the public school landscape look like if public charter schools were to actually come to fruition? In the past decade, demand for charter schools has risen 40 percent, from 3,400 to 6,000 charter school nationwide. While 2.3 million students are served in these schools, there are over 1 million on waiting lists. Of course there are the headline-grabbing instances of charter schools closing down, most recently Oprah Winfrey's Star Charter School in New Orleans.

But there are also public charter school success stories like KIPP Academy Houston, the flagship of over 30 KIPP charters in the U.S., where 86 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 98 percent are minority students. KIPP's 5th graders scored a full 10 percent higher than the state average on math and reading tests in 2011, and the 8th graders scored 23 percent higher in math (at 96 percent). These students who are traditionally at a disadvantage when it comes to math and reading excel because of their charter school set up.

Could the same happen in Mississippi, where 78 percent of 4th graders and 81 percent of 8th graders do not read proficiently? Would charter schools make a positive impact on the state where 78 percent of fourth graders and 85 percent of 8th graders are not operating at a satisfactory math level? I think it is certainly possible but of course, nothing is easy. Schools of any kind can only do so much in teaching and preparing students for academic success and beyond. Even the most intensive, focused academic programs can only go so far in helping students break a cycle of academic failure, particularly if parents are ill-equipped to help their kids do better.

So are public charter schools a solution to the K-12 crisis in Mississippi? I think it is certainly a topic that deserves some serious discussion and not just in the form of ineffective laws that are not actionable. Allowing the establishment of charter schools in Mississippi could be the answer to the academic underachievement that plagues Mississippi. It certainly couldn't make it any worse.

Are you in a state with charter schools? What is your view?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.



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