Answers to Your Questions About Charter Schools
Q. Why do parents and children in “Successful” districts need public charter schools?
A. For the same reasons parents and children in any district might want a public charter school. Charter schools are not like antibiotics that should be given only to sick children; they are more like a dose of Vitamin C. Like a daily glass of orange juice, charters can provide a boost of innovation and excellence that can benefit every school district in Mississippi. Studies have shown that charters can help traditional public schools perform better. According to an 8-year study funded by the Texas Department of Education, charter schools helped improve student performance across the board for students who remained in other public schools. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education has found that charter schools encourage other public schools to improve performance and increase communication with parents.
Moreover, the majority of “Successful” schools and districts are not very successful at all. In our state accountability system, the “Successful” label is assigned to third tier, middle-of-the-road schools and districts. Almost half (44 percent) of the schools rated “Successful” scored in the bottom half of achievement scores last year. Fewer than half of “Successful” districts met their growth projections in reading and math last year. Just as important, some children struggle in even good schools, and they should have the option to attend a school that will meet their needs. Why should these children be forced to attend a school that might be good for a majority of kids but not for them?
Q. How will charters impact existing public school funding?
A. Charters are public schools. Thus, a charter school impacts public school funding in a similar way that any new school impacts funding. Charters will spring up where demand exists for better schools and new options. That said, charters can actually reduce overall educational costs, especially in growing districts, because local bond funding is not available for charter schools. Thus, a charter school could relieve a district of the need to build a new school. Funding from foundations, etc., supplemented in some cases with federal grants, usually is the funding source for charter school facilities. The per-pupil funding that follows the child to a charter school does not include any amounts pledged to paying off local bonds.
At their core, charters are about funding student performance, as opposed to an educational system or bureaucracy. Charters are focused on helping kids succeed – they have to in order to stay open.
Q: Why can public charter schools hire teachers who might not have a state teaching certificate or license?
A: For a school to receive federal funding, their teachers have to be “highly qualified,” which might or might not include a teaching certificate from the state where they are teaching. They must have a college degree and demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter. SB2401 allows each charter school to hire some teachers (no more than 50 percent of total teaching staff) who are “highly qualified” but do not possess a teaching certificate. For instance, the school could hire a retired college professor who holds a Ph.D., but doesn’t have an elementary or secondary teaching license. Every charter contract is a performance-based contract that requires the charter school to make sure its teachers are successful. Exempting charters from teacher certification requirements allows them to hire qualified teachers “who may not necessarily be certified” if the school determines that teacher is the best teacher for achieving student success. But student success is really the only test that should measure how well a teacher is doing in the classroom.
Q. Who should exercise oversight over public charter schools?
A. Every charter school is “authorized” by a public entity responsible for ensuring that the school does what it promised in its charter, or contract, with the authorizer. Charters that fail to meet the high standards set out in their performance contract are closed by the authorizer. Under SB 2401, a Public Charter School Authorizer Board (PCSAB) is responsible for authorizing charter schools in Mississippi. School boards in districts rated “High-Performing” or “Star” may veto the establishment of a charter school in their districts.
Q. How do we know public charter schools are effective?
A. There are more than 5,000 charter schools in 40 states serving nearly 2 million students. A study by RAND, a respected think tank partially funded by the U.S. government, found that charter schools have graduation rates 7 percent to 15 percent higher than in other public schools. In Florida, students in charter high schools are more likely to attend college. Likewise, students in charter schools in New York City are performing significantly better than their peers in traditional public schools. On the other hand, some studies of varying quality have found that some students in charter schools do worse and some do about the same when compared to their counterparts in regular public schools. In some cases, this is because charter schools have attracted low-performing students to begin with, so the average scores for those schools might be lower for a while. But there are charter schools that really don?t get the job done, and those are the ones that should close. The states with the best record for student success in charter schools are those where the charter school law is strong. SB2401 is patterned after those strong laws.
Q. Why not wait?
A. The question is whether charters are needed in Mississippi. Given our poor performance on national achievement tests, such as the ACT, where our scores are the same as they were 20 years ago, and the NAEP (considered the Nation?s Report Card, issued by the U.S. Department of Education), where 8th grade reading scores are the same as they were in 1998, the answer is clear. The first charter school in the nation opened 20 years ago and graduated 17 former dropouts. Mississippi is actually behind the curve. The good news here is that SB 2401 incorporates best practices from many states, including a strong accountability process that will help ensure charter schools in Mississippi are among the best in the country. Waiting only traps more kids in a failing system.