November 2, 2005
By Dan Lips
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
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
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
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
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
Dan Lips is an
education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a
Washington-based public policy research institute.
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.
Senior Policy Analyst
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