I have some great news, and some bad news.
First, the bad news. Charter school legislation is dead for this legislative session. Thousands of children will go another year without being able to escape the schools that are failing to meet their needs.
But I quickly want to let you know the great news. The legislature did pass one of our top priorities, a bill we drafted that will affect every school and every school district this year. I think it is one of the most significant changes in education policy in years.
This Fall, parents and communities will finally be able to have a clear understanding of how their school and district have been rated by the state Department of Education. No longer will there be the confusion of meaningless labels that hinder meaningful debate about the quality of schools.
From now on, schools and districts will be given letter grades, A through F.
Now, that might not seem like a big deal, but one of the major reasons the charter school bills died this year was because legislators were defending districts that are labeled “Successful.” Beginning this Fall, those districts will be labeled more accurately – as a “C” district. Yes, “Successful” simply means “average” – at best.
No one had paid much attention to the fallacy of our school rating system until we published our research showing how meaningless the “Successful” label is. We found that two districts rated “Successful” have zero schools rated that highly. And twelve districts rated “Successful” have at least half their schools rated below “Successful.”
We also found that 44 percent of “Successful” schools scored in the bottom half of achievement scores in the state.
These facts became a frequent component in legislative debates on a wide variety of education issues. We truly were able to change the course of debate by revealing the truth about school ratings.
Next year, legislators – and school superintendents – will be trying to explain why children in “C” schools and districts should be deprived of the opportunity to choose a school that better meets their needs, whether that is a charter school or some other option. And more importantly, the public will rise up and demand that their local schools make the changes needed to become an “A” school. That’s what has happened in other states that have adopted the A-through-F grading scale.
Having said all that, there is reason to believe the grading system itself creates artificially high ratings, regardless of the labels. We’ll be looking into that this summer, and we’ll be taking other actions to shine light on the reality of our public school system’s quality.
Our goal is to change the focus of our education system to its primary purpose: educating children. Not maintaining a system or employing adults, but educating children. We believe choice and competition create the best incentives to accomplish that goal.
The education establishment has built a Berlin Wall around the current system, keeping their own people from escaping to better opportunities. We will continue to encourage our legislature to tear down that wall. It didn’t happen in this session, but I am more confident than ever that choice and competition will come to Mississippi.