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November 2, 2005

Assignment: Create Charter Schools in Mississippi

By

The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded $21 million to Louisiana to create 10 new charter schools and expand existing charter schools to serve students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi could have attracted similar help, except that, so far, it has failed to pass a strong charter-school law.

Charter schools -- publicly funded schools that agree to meet performance standards set by the state but are otherwise freed from the bureaucratic rules and regulations that encumber traditional school systems -- represent a growing part of the American education scene. Today, the nation's 3,400 public charter schools enroll more than 1 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

The charter-school movement has attracted bipartisan support thanks to educators' willingness to innovate and rules stating that these schools must meet performance goals or close. In his 1998 State of the Union Address, President Clinton called for the creation of hundreds of new charter schools. Such schools, he said, "can help to save public education in this country by proving that excellence can be provided to all children from all backgrounds, no matter what experiences they bring to school in the first place."

Yet, today, Mississippi has only one charter school. Its charter law limits the state to six such schools and lets local school boards -- traditional opponents of charters -- decide whether to authorize them. The Center for Education Reform, an organization that monitors the charter-school movement, graded all of the states' charter school laws. Mississippi earned an "F." Only nine states -- those without a charter law -- fared worse.

Gov. Haley Barbour has tried to bring more charters to Mississippi since he took office last year. He's tried to suggest to a skeptical state legislature that the schools could help improve education in the state's many poorly performing school districts. But so far, the legislature has agreed only to form a commission to study the feasibility of expanding charters.

By all means, study the charter-school movement. Study Arizona and California -- which, together, have 1,000-plus schools serving more than 260,000 students. Study the national numbers that reveal dramatic growth in charter-school enrollment and the surveys that show a high level of parental satisfaction with the charter-school experience.

Study the most recent research from Harvard University economist and charter-school expert Carolyn Hoxby. She compared text scores of fourth-graders in charter schools with those of their peers in the nearest public schools and found the charter students 4 percent more proficient in reading and 2 percent more proficient in math. Those are big numbers in student proficiency.

Earlier, Hoxby studied the Arizona and Michigan state school systems, where charters have existed since 1994. In both states, she found student test scores in public-school exposed to competition from charter schools increased more rapidly than public schools that faced no competition from charters. This research suggests that, rather than harming public schools, competition will actually make public schools stronger.

Indeed, Mississippi should study the charter-school movement. But it must do so quickly. The state's department of education estimates that 271 schools in 41 counties were damaged or destroyed during Katrina. That means 170,000 students' educations have been in some way interrupted by the hurricane. Prior to the hurricane, Mississippi already ranked near the bottom of the nation in most measures of educational achievement.

There never will be a better time for schools in Mississippi with the freedom and flexibility to find innovative ways to meet educational goals. By all means, find successful models from elsewhere in the country and copy them. By all means, erect demanding performance measures and insist these new schools meet them.

But act quickly. Create a system where teachers and parents can work together to open schools quickly without traditional red tape. Let funding "follow the children" to their chosen schools -- a surefire way to encourage excellence.

Be bold in this time of crisis. Mississippi's children can't wait.

Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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