Charter schools not a magical cure for what ills education

Published 11:13 am Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A charter school can be a model of excellence in all aspects. Many are. Similarly, a traditional public school can be a model of excellence in all aspects. Many are.

Mississippi lawmakers are increasing their pace to contract out more of what for generations has been seen as a public obligation.

Charter schools are touted as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They’re not. The missing ingredient in K-12 education is motivation. That’s a much more complex topic.

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Yet instead of addressing the stresses communities face, what’s driving the conversation in Jackson is simply an unspoken desire to get education off lawmakers’ plates.

We’ve seen this before and in several contexts.

Faced with the ever-growing cost of building and operating prisons, states, including Mississippi, moved toward “privatizing” the industry of incarceration. In turn, prison corporations became some of America’s most profitable.

Faced with more regulations on waste disposal and higher costs, many cities and counties moved toward “privatizing” their garbage and landfill operations. Browning-Ferris (BFI) and Waste Management (WMI) trucks and crews now ply the streets. A public liability became a private asset.

For a while, lawmakers talked about contracting-out collection of past-due child support. So-called traffic cameras, privately owned and operated to auto-issue citations to motorists and share some of the “fines” with cities were all the rage in Mississippi until the Legislature banned them.

Many public school districts already hire companies to provide janitorial services, operate kitchens and provide fleets of yellow buses and drivers. The next step isn’t a giant step, just hire a company to provide a building, teachers and administrators.

The sales pitch is always the same: Write us one check, and we’ll take care of everything.

Often, this approach works well. No savings to taxpayers materialize. Costs continue to escalate as they would regardless. But a worry is taken off the minds of officials. If a constituent complains about school food, the superintendent can promise to speak to the vendor. It’s no longer the superintendent’s responsibility.

Charter school advocates have co-opted popular images to appeal to skeptics. “There’s poor little Timmy sitting in a corner. He’s from a low-income family and is trapped in a low-performing public school. Is this fair? Rich people already have choices. Why shouldn’t little Timmy?”

Charter school skeptics find a use for little Timmy, too. One argument is that there are abundant numbers like him, and there’s no way to avoid some of them being left behind.

Another argument is that charter school legislation is merely a mechanism to funnel public money to existing private schools created decades ago as “segregation academies.”

Charter school advocates also sing the merits of competition, of hiring providers motivated by profits to earn student enrollment through performance. That’s better, they believe, than flaccid old public schools where the fat and happy faculty and staff just sit around and wait for the next state check to show up. That’s a possible scenario, but it’s certainly not typical. Most public schools are staffed by professionals doing the best they can with what they have.

Whether charter schools are private schools or privately operated public schools is also a focus of some chatter. There are all sorts of tax implications and incentives riding on the designation. Suffice it to say that Forbes magazine reports that 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are officially for-profit. Too, the National Labor Relations Board found that some New York charter schools are properly classified as businesses.

Perhaps it oversimplifies to say that charter school proponents in the Legislature merely want the topic of K-12 education shifted away from them, but “education” is a commonly seen as a problem, not a challenge. Constituents call and write with all kinds of beefs, gripes, pleas and contentions. Too, lawmakers have progressively become more and more involved in operational details. When and whether to have PE classes, even starting dates for academic terms — once local matters — are now debated in the Capitol.

With President Trump’s blanket endorsement, there’s little doubt Mississippi will expand charter schools.

The deal, though, is that it’s complete folly to think handing K-12 education off to the world of commerce fixes everything.

Schools are a reflection of their communities. As harsh as that may sound, the reality is that where policy and legislation can make a greater difference is by building confidence in young people and families that there is a future in which being educated matters.

Charter schools may be part of that, but they are not the do-all to end-all.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at