CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Senate and House conferees soon will work on a compromise bill to make charter schools possible in Mississippi.

Both chambers passed charter school bills last week, but the measures differ slightly, so a conference committee seems certain. Charter schools, a public-education priority for some Mississippians, would allow parents and faculty members to propose a mission statement for a school and, in effect, establish a school for a specialized and highly focused purpose with the state's permission.

The bills passed last week are legislatively conservative, and that is precisely the approach needed if Mississippi is to allow tax-funded charter schools. The House and Senate still have under consideration the Adequate Education Program, and the central point of debate has been funds to pay for it. The same scrutiny and caution should be applied to any charter schools proposal because funding for them must be sliced from the same budget pie as all other education programs.

Senate Education Chairman Grey Ferris of Vicksburg said the legislation was written to keep charter schools firmly within the context of public education. Mississippi doesn't need charter schools because it needs a revived stress on elitism but because charter schools might provide cutting-edge leadership that could be adapted in other public schools. Ferris has the right idea about charter schools' role.

The idea, as the Legislature has so far endorsed it, would require the petitioners for charter schools to get permission from a local board of education and then from the state board of education. A limited number would be chartered during the first two years (the Senate proposal for five schools is better than the 10 allowed in the House measure). The charter schools would be eligible for extra federal funding but would not be given extra state funds.

It should be noted that much and probably all that backers of charter schools claim for them could be accomplished with extra parental and community support of existing public schools.

The private sector, for example, has made significant positive impacts in the Tupelo and Ripely school systems. Organizations seeking academic excellence and special focus have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to underwrite special needs within school systems.

Communities united in their efforts for public education probably would find charter schools redundant if their full energies were poured into excellence and academic focus for all students.

A pilot project with a few schools should show more clearly exactly what the benefits will be in Mississippi and how many students could gain from the experience. Anything more would create an unnecessary risk of tax dollars.

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