I’ve been itching to write this for a while.
Mississippi’s Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House have all clearly stated that having a working charter schools bill is one of if not the top priority this next session.
After 2011’s election and a slight stumble in a busy 2012 session, Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature have the votes to get just about whatever version of charter school legislation that they want. They can horsewhip their caucus and get a workable bill done even over the histrionics of the legislators and special interests who don’t want it.
I’m here to advocate that they don’t do that yet . . . at least not in that way.
It’s not what you think. I think privately-run charter schools are absolutely the ticket. Our public education system is so fundamentally broken in this state that, in save a handful of school districts, those who can afford to opt out usually do. The private school system is thriving in this state and those schools are rightfully becoming more racially diverse.
Education isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue or a black and white issue. Just about every parent out there wants the exact same thing . . . the best education possible for our children. However, when parents who can’t afford live in an area with good schools and are demographically or geographically imprisoned in a failing school district (that they must by law send their child), it adversely affects everything. The worst school districts are rife with violence, incompetent teachers and administrators, lagging facilities and worst of all . . . low expectations.
Again, those that have the means either send their kids to private school or move to an area with marginally better public schools, leaving only those who simply don’t have another option.
Republicans in Mississippi are fundamentally correct on this issue. Charter schools provides parents a viable option to provide their children with an adequate education (with their own tax dollars).
Democrats in Mississippi and the teachers unions are fundamentally wrong on this issue. They don’t want charter schools because (1) they feel that people (especially poor people) are not capable to organize and provide input to the educational framework for their children (2) there are lots of votes and money around the education issue and (3) they believe that they can do it better themselves, though there is not a shred of empirical evidence over the last 30 years that it is the case. There are some lobbyists and superintendents that say they’ll support charter schools, but their tactics have been and will remain to demagogue the issue and to only go along with something they know won’t work or something that only they can control.
Bad public schools have disproportionately affected the poorest of Mississippi families. Our neighbors in Arkansas and Louisiana have many of their poorest kids in schools that many of our poorest parents could only dream of for their own children.
What to do?
Republicans need to reach out into the community and build a coalition. Yes, they have the votes to pass it straight up. It’s still the right thing to do. But they’re right on this issue, and if they play a little longball, they can politically break the backs of the self-styled education experts and trough hogs that have contributed to keeping a lid on Mississippi’s prosperity for decades. The key is to reach directly into the black community. There are many in the black community who want charter schools, but there is absolutely massive pressure against them speaking up.
I’ll freely admit that Republicans in Mississippi have not shown much of a track record of this kind of outreach. But this is where they should start. When Republicans can connect their issue to a single mother in West Jackson or the Delta being able to send their kid to a better school like the kids throughout urban New Orleans do, they will win. And they won’t win just along party lines. They’ll win the larger fight overwhelmingly. The educational curve is finding champions for charter schools in the black community and giving them support and a voice in the process. There are inner city preachers that want to have charter schools as part of their mission for their congregation. There are black legislators who, deep down, know that privately-run charter schools provide the best opportunity for their constituents. Champions in the black community are out there, but many are scared that they will be labeled in their church or their community or the news media.
Senators and Representatives ought to hold hearings where they do nothing but allow moms with children in failing schools to testify for days on end about how frustrated they are and how they wish their kids could go to a better school, even the one just down the road. My gut sense is that moms and dads from around the state would line up around the Capitol Building for a chance to speak directly to legislators and the media without the filters of “Parents” organizations, school supertintendents or their legislators (funded by the same “Parents” organizations).
Even if the price to have a bipartisan, biracial result is to have privately run K-12 charter schools initially limited to school districts graded C or lower, the benefits of having wide support outweigh the political pure consideration of having charter schools in every district, day one.
Real outreach should happen publicly and privately. There’s no question that my way is the harder political path. But it’s the right one and it ought to be in the planning process . . . right about now.