Charter school forum showcases Jackson County legislators’ opposing views

April M. Havens

GAUTIER, Mississippi – A forum on Mississippi’s proposed charter school legislation, hosted by Trinity Outreach Corp., drew about 40 people and many questions Saturday morning.

The event, held at Gautier’s Singing River Elementary, featured local legislators and a Mississippi Center for Justice attorney with education expertise.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, spoke in favor of the charter schools initiative and provided a data-filled presentation for the audience, which included parents, teachers and administrators from throughout Jackson County.

Rep. Billy Broomfield, D-Moss point, spoke against the measure.

Attorney Kim Duffy spoke about her experience with and research on charter schools.

Duffy said the Mississippi Center for Justice has no formal stance on charter schools.

“It can be a good thing,” she said, depending on how the charter schools are operated.

Studies show, however, that “a charter school in and of itself is not going to do anything different than public schools,” Duffy said.

Starting a charter school program, she said, “is not as easy as putting it on a piece of paper,” and requires a great deal of accountability to be successful.

Busby argued that any state legislation would do just that.

Charter schools “would need to live up to what they say they are going to do, or we’ll shut them down,” he said.

The proposed bills have 2 specific mechanisms for shutting down failed charter schools, he said.

The senate bill says any charter school with an F rating for 2 consecutive years will have its charter revoked. The house bill says if any charter school has a failing grade at the end of its initial 5-year charter, the charter will not be renewed.

“They must be held accountable,” Busby said, “or it won’t work.”

Busby noted the charter school initiative won’t be a panacea for the state’s lag in education, but it will increase parental choice and provide a step in the right direction.

Broomfield argued that the state’s public schools are low performing because education hasn’t been fully funded in the past.

Charter schools, he said, “will bankrupt some school districts and close some schools because the dollar follows the child.”

Because Mississippi is a small, poor state, he said, charter schools won’t work.

“You don’t have enough students to draw from without affecting the public school systems,” he said.

Busby said “throwing money at the problem” won’t help. For example, the Moss Point School District spends more than $12,000 per pupil — more than other local districts — and it still struggles.

Duffy noted there is a major link between funds and educational success. “The Delta is dead last, and that is because of money,” she said.

Richer districts, such as the Ocean Springs School District, can educate their children for less money, she said, because their children were ready for school.

It generally takes more money to education children who live in tougher socio-economic conditions, Duffy said.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who attended the forum, said afterward that he still supports charter schools.

“This is about our children and preparing them for the future,” he said. “I think sometimes that gets lost in the political rhetoric, … but the bottom line is that Mississippi is near the bottom in education and we need to do everything we can to improve it.”