When Betsy DeVos visited Holmes County recently, nary a word was spoken by the U.S. secretary of education or the educators who addressed remarks to her about school choice, the innovation that she has championed for decades and for which she has been most criticized by public school advocates.
Her trip to Holmes County Central High School maybe wasn’t the time or place to talk about charter schools and private-school vouchers. The overriding purpose of her visit to Mississippi as part of a four-state Southern swing was to highlight education innovations that appear to have promise. At Holmes County Central, it was a classroom approach that blends in-class instruction with online lectures and tutoring to bring advanced courses to places where high achievers too often go unchallenged in the classroom.
The nine students with whom DeVos interacted while she sat in on an AP Physics course seemed like the kind of children who would excel wherever they are. Motivated, eager learners with aspirations to go to college and pursue careers as accountants, architects or other similar professions — and escape the poverty that traps almost half the people who live in Holmes County.
But in that same school there are another 735 students for whom the traditional educational system has largely been unsuccessful. According to the latest data from the Mississippi Department of Education, more than 80 percent of the students at Holmes County Central are not proficient in reading or math, even when using this state’s overly generous definition of what proficiency means. For the district as a whole, it has unofficially been given an F grade based on the academic performance of its students for the third straight year and could be taken over by the state for the second time in a little more than a decade.
It would have been impolitic of DeVos to say to her hosts that the Holmes County district is precisely the type of place where poor families need an alternative to the public-school monopoly. Nevertheless, when she preaches about innovation, flexibility and change, school choice is a central piece, and arguably the biggest piece, to what she considers to be the best answer to failing public schools.
Unlike DeVos’ home state of Michigan, which is overrun with charter schools, Mississippi is late to the game.
It presently has five, with at least one more approved to start next year. Leflore County could be the site for the seventh one. A decision on Leflore Legacy Academy, whose application was not recommended by evaluators but held for reconsideration by the state authorizing board, is expected later this month.
The early results on Mississippi’s charter schools have not been encouraging.
Only the first three charters, all located in Jackson, have so far gone through the state testing and grading system that is required of traditional public schools. One of the three, ReImagine Prep, has a proficiency rating in math that is twice that of F-rated Holmes County, based on last spring’s test results. But Holmes County did better in math than the other two, and it is on par or better than all three of them in reading. The scores at Midtown Public Charter School are so bad — less than 10 percent proficient in reading and math both this year and last — that it should have its charter pulled.
I had high hopes for charter schools in Mississippi, but my faith is starting to waver. If a C, a D and an F is the best that they can do, even after two years or more in operation, that’s no better than traditional schools are performing with students of similar economic and educational disadvantages.
DeVos and other school-choice proponents have argued that charter schools and vouchers not only will save children from substandard public schools but also will make the substandard schools better by forcing them to compete for students.
When asked, though, in an interview earlier this year on the CBS news show “60 Minutes” whether school choice in Michigan, with about 300 charter schools, has made the public schools there better, she said she couldn’t say. That’s not very reassuring.
The charter movement nationally has been a mixed bag. Some charters have done well, others have done poorly — about the same track record as traditional public schools. It usually all comes down to who is running them.
Mississippi needs to show that charters truly make a difference, first in the lives of the students they enroll, then hopefully in traditional schools that can learn from their best practices.
But if the charter schools can’t at least accomplish Job 1 and prove it, they are a waste of time and money.
Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or email@example.com.