Get the facts on charter schools first

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 7, 2010

MCT II testing begins next week in Adams County, while in the halls of state government, education reform is the rallying call for those who seek to pull struggling schools back from the abyss.

It appears our educational tipping point has arrived, which causes us to wonder in which direction Mississippi will swing on the educational pendulum. Senate Bill 2293 calls for the establishment of New Start “Conversion Charter” Schools in schools that receive a failing designation after two consecutive years. Charter schools, or Mississippi’s version of them, are set to roll in our state in the near future.

Charter schools certainly look attractive and they have become the cause célbre for a group of philanthropists whose wealth is measured in the billions. It is admirable that their philanthropic foundations have put a spotlight on education reform, and their much needed dollars are establishing charter schools that work.

On the other side of the charter school movement is a recent study done by Stanford University. In this comprehensive study it was found that out of the 5,000 charter schools in our nation, less than one-fifth offered a better education than comparable local schools. Almost half the charter schools offered an equivalent education, and more than one-third of the charter schools were worse than comparable local schools.

Don’t be misled here. There are charter schools that are reaching the stratosphere with their success stories, but they are in the minority according to a New York Times article. However, it is these schools that attract the notice and generosity of the “big bucks” foundations. The same article cites the Stanford University research, and goes on to make a comparison of two charter schools. One, in Brooklyn, N.Y., is succeeding while the other, in Cleveland, Ohio, is failing. The “why?” is in the details. School environment, strong oversight, government accreditation and human capital are all a part of the success package.

For the non-profit network of charter schools like KIPP, Aspire, and Uncommon, success also means the very deep pockets of the generous billionaires’ club to the tune of $500 million.

In times such as these it is quite common to play the blame game and point fingers at all involved in our educational system. The “fire them all” attitude toward government officials and now toward teachers reminds me of the villagers storming Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. The zeal has turned to misguided frenzy.

There are things that need reforming in our state’s educational system, but there are many things that are working and many hard working people that are making the changes necessary for success.

Charter schools and their imitators may seem like the quick fix, but from the data coming out of recent studies, they appear easier to start than to sustain. If our legislators are really serious about charter or pseudo charter schools, I suggest that they contact Geoffery Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, or Williamsburg Collegiate in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see what works and why.

Mary Ann Downs is a math lab teacher at McLaurin Elementary School.