Last week, several events were held across the country to celebrate School Choice Week, a week of events highlighting “effective educational options” for families. Mississippi First took part in a School Choice Week event, which featured speeches from elected officials, education groups, educators, and students. Although we have only advocated for one school choice policy–public charter schools–we chose to participate in this broader event for us for two reasons. First, we believe “school choice” will be a very important topic during the current legislative session, and participating in this event gave us an opportunity to help frame the discussion over the months ahead around the values we believe are important in any education policy discussion–a commitment to educational excellence, equity, transparency, and accountability. We also wanted to share our strongly held belief that supporting a particular form of school choice doesn’t (and shouldn’t) signify a vote of no-confidence in our traditional public school districts.
Below is a long except of my prepared remarks from the event. My aim was to clearly state Mississippi First’s very specific position on school choice and to make the case that the “charter school & district school” conversation should be “both/and” rather than “either/or.”
…The concept of “school choice” means different things to different people. For Mississippi First, it means working to build a high-quality charter school sector that’s built on opportunity and accountability. We believe that students in underperforming schools or districts should have the opportunity to seek better options. This is especially true for low-income parents, who often can’t afford to move to better districts or pay for private school tuition. We also believe in holding schools accountable for results. Because our Legislature passed a strong charter law in 2013, Mississippi has set high standards for those who wish to educate our children. And when charter schools are approved, they are held accountable for keeping the academic promises they make. We are grateful to our Legislature for passing a law that has been ranked as one of the best charter school policies in the nation.
During this current session, we ask that the Legislature take steps to strengthen our charter school law by providing greater opportunity and greater accountability. We ask the Legislature allow students to cross district lines to attend charter schools. This change will allow more families, especially those in small, rural communities, to pursue the charter option while also mitigating a charter school’s impact on any one school district. We also ask the Legislature to strengthen accountability by mandating that if or when a charter high school opens in Mississippi, it will be held to the same graduation standards required of our traditional public school districts. These important steps will help us expand access while also prioritizing quality within our charter schools.
I’ve seen both district schools and charter schools produce success. My Coahoma County Red Panthers and KIPPsters have grown up to become soldiers, pastors, and nurses. I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing many of my former students return as teachers to the very classrooms they once sat in as students. We need to continue to celebrate these students and their successes, but we need to be keenly aware that this is not the story of every Mississippi child.
What I find unacceptable is that too many of our children are still not receiving a quality education. These students are our neighbors, friends, and family. We know them by name. We know the name of the young child who started Kindergarten already years behind his peers. We know the name of the 4th grade students who should actually be in the 6th grade. We know the name of the 18-year-old student who won’t graduate with her class this year, and we know the name of the decorated high school graduate who’s currently sitting in remedial college classes. For the sake of those students, we have an obligation to use each and every proven tool at our disposal to ensure that every Mississippi child receives the excellent education that they need and deserve.
The “charter school versus school district” debate is a false choice. Mississippi needs both! Our students need options if their schools fall short, AND they need us to do whatever it takes to turn around our lowest-performing schools and districts. We must do both! Our students need us to ensure that successful charter schools can expand to serve more students AND they need us to figure out how successful charter school practices can be replicated in our public school districts. We must do both!…