The first public charter school opened in Mississippi more than two decades after our nation’s first charter school welcomed students in Minnesota. Today, five years after state legislators finally allowed charter schools to operate in our state, it is safe to say that charter approvals continue at the same snail’s pace.

By: Brett Kittredge Director of Marketing and Communications for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and Elyse Marcellino of Empower Mississippi

The Mississippi Charter Authorizer Board recently voted to allow a new school, Ambition Prep, to open in West Jackson next year. It was the only school to be greenlighted by the state in this cycle, though two other proposals were tabled for consideration in October.

In 2018, 16 different operators proposed opening a total of 17 schools across the state from the Coast to Jackson to the Delta. The prior two years, 18 operators filed similar letters of intent to begin the charter school application process.

But when Ambition Prep opens it will be just the sixth charter school in the state, with all but one in Jackson.

Educational entrepreneurs are interested in opening schools. And parents are interested in options. Despite the small footprint, 15-20 percent of public school students in Jackson who attend a grade that is also served by a charter school are enrolled in charter schools. And that number will only increase.

Yet in light of the slow-growing sector, limited enrollment, and swelling wait lists, we wonder whose opinion matters more when it comes to educational choice – government or parents’?

Our charter law emphasizes a rigorous application process and “high quality” schools. Yet this bottleneck has created much greater pressure for early charter schools and a less dynamic and attractive environment for new operators to enter. The restriction of charter applications to D and F-rated districts most recently left the authorizer board torn between rejecting or approving an application faster than they would like to, in the event the district’s grade changes and invalidates the nearly successful proposal.

In advance of the release of school grades, state superintendent Carey Wright cautioned against judging charter schools too quickly, since they face unique start-up and environmental challenges along with the added pressure of serving students far behind academically. But the law makes this reasonable approach difficult: schools have a very narrow timeframe in which to meet certain state-determined guidelines or be shut down.

A different approach

Many years ago, Arizona took a different approach to charters than Mississippi. In Arizona, charters have a 15-year window rather than just a 5-year window to stay in business, as they do here. But most schools take far fewer than 15 years to prove their worth. And instead of the state stepping in to close poor-performing schools, parents do.

Over the past five years, more than 200 charters schools have opened in the Grand Canyon State. In the same five years, 100 other schools have closed. The average charter school that closes in Arizona is open just four years and has an average of 62 students in its final year. Parents don’t wait for the state to say if a charter is or isn’t meeting government benchmarks. They make a determination themselves. The charter sector grows according to demand, not top-down controls, ensuring that parents can make decisions about their child’s education without delay, rather than waiting for years to have a school or seat open up. Families also have many schools to choose from if one is not the right fit.

The data shows us that choice produces better student outcomes than tight government regulations.

In 2017, National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, scores showed Arizona charters again performing as high as or better than traditionally top-performing states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey. Arizona did this while spending half of what those states spend and educating a high-minority student population.

Schools like Jackson Academy, Jackson Prep, St. Andrew’s, St Joe’s, MRA, Hartfield, and others compete for students every day. They sell themselves on why consumers, parents, should send their children to their school. And parents make decisions on where to enroll their children based on a host of reasons, ranging from academics to athletics, from values to extracurricular activities. This has created a robust private school market in the area. Why shouldn’t public schools of choice work similarly?

We’re glad leaders in Mississippi are working to create more public education options for those who want them. But the slow pace of opening charters, and the limitations on where they can be located or who can attend, is not leading to a responsive charter marketplace anytime soon. In these early stages of development, Mississippi has the opportunity to learn from other states and decide if parent demand and satisfaction should play a greater role in the charter approval process.

After all, what’s working for Arizona just might work here too.

This column appeared in The Northside Sun on September 20, 2018.