A legislative watchdog group that analyzes the performance of state agencies recently released a report about the funding of charter schools in Mississippi and the board that supervises them.
The report by PEER, whose formal name is the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, made several recommendations about state funding, better staggering of terms of office for charter school board members, and earlier decisions about charter school license renewals so that parents will have more notice about the following year.
What the PEER report thankfully did not address is whether Mississippi should make a significant overhaul to its charter school approval system, with the express goal of opening more charter schools.
Advocates of this action complain that in the nearly nine years since the Legislature set up guidelines and supervision for charter schools, only seven of them have opened. They believe the state should be far more aggressive in offering alternatives in areas where public education is poorly rated.
While seven charter schools is an unexpectedly low number, it is impossible to believe the Charter School Authorizer Board is willfully rejecting qualified applicants. The more likely explanation is that the board is rejecting applicants because it is not convinced that they have the resources to run a school, even a small one that starts out with a couple of grades.
Few would have predicted that Mississippi would have only seven charter schools today — five in Jackson, one in Clarksdale and one in Greenwood — that according to the PEER report educate just 2,417 students. Another one is schedule to open this year in Canton.
But maybe this low number isn’t such a surprise. Education, whether public, private or charter, is expensive. And running a school of any size is a demanding assignment.
The charter school board is right to tread carefully. Nothing could be worse for any community than to have a charter school approved by the state, only to have it close after a few years for poor management or any similar reason.
The impatience of charter school advocates is understandable. Arkansas, to cite just one example, has 75 charter schools — 10 times the number in Mississippi — though a lot of them are in larger cities like Little Rock or growing counties in Northwest Arkansas.
Mississippi, of course, doesn’t have a whole lot of large cities. And remember that Jackson, the state’s biggest city by far, has five of the seven existing charter schools.
The biggest need for education alternatives is in the rural counties and small towns that dot Mississippi. This, of course, is the biggest impediment to charter schools in the state. It’s harder to find strong school operators in these low-population areas, and this is a key reason why the charter school board is so selective.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal