Despite passage of new, controversial regulations for public charter schools, one charter advocate thinks there is still time for the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board to change them.
Elyse Marcellino, director of the New School Project at Empower Mississippi, told the Northside Sun the new regulations will be rolled out as a pilot project that won’t be fully implemented until next year. The new regulations are the first time the board has reworked the regulations since they were implemented in 2013.
The new standards measure accountability for the 501(c)(3) non-profits that operate the schools in three areas: Academic (student achievement), financial (measures whether the school operator is a good steward of taxpayer funds) and organizational (measures whether the non-profit is stable enough to continue operating the school). The schools are free public schools and receive taxpayer funds for each student that attends there.
“We still want to speak to the board and will be advocating for changes and talking to schools and making sure that they're connecting with the board and their voices are being heard,” Marcellino said.
Among the issues with the regulations, as pointed out by charter advocacy group Mississippi First, include unaltered adoption of the Mississippi Department of Education's accounting manual (written for traditional public schools with no specific changes for charters) for the fiscal component of the framework and unfair academic comparisons with surrounding public school districts.
The "district of comparison" component of the new academic performance standards also eschews student-level data that matches the grade level in the charter school in favor of publicly-available data that includes comparisons with grade levels that aren't taught at the charter. They also say the new academic standards aren't clear, comprehensive or rigorous.
The new performance framework was largely opposed by charter school operators and advocates such as Mississippi First and Empower Mississippi because they say it will make Mississippi a less attractive state for charter operators and make it more difficult for existing schools to get their contracts renewed, which are usually in four- or five-year increments. The new standards, advocates say, compare unfavorably to the regulations in states with other charter schools.
The board voted on December 16 to pass the new regulations that will be the framework to evaluate the accountability of a charter operator. This framework is important since compliance will be essential for charter school operators seeking to renew their contracts.
During a hearing on October 27, charter school advocates and school operators said the new regulations could not only constrain growth of the state’s charter school sector, but also make it more difficult for existing schools to get their contracts renewed.
Mississippi’s charter school population has been stuck in the single digits since the law was passed in 2013. There are seven schools at present, with two set to open next fall. The 1,600 or so students attending Mississippi's seven charter schools represent only 0.36 percent of the more than 442,000 enrolled in Mississippi public schools.
In 1994, Arizona passed its law creating a charter school sector. Right now, there are 214,243 students enrolled in 555 charter schools (19.2 percent of the total enrollment of 1.11 million).
Florida passed its charter law in 1996 and there are 312,367 students in 654 schools statewide. That represents 11.1 percent of all public school enrollment (2.79 million).
One problem, Marcellino said, was that the authorizer board rejects about 80 percent of all applicants. Since Mississippi doesn’t have an alternate authorizer authority, rejected school operators are forced to try again the following year. About 36 applications to operate charters have been rejected by the authorizer board since 2013.
Both Arizona and Florida allow multiple entities to authorize charter schools.why doesnt MIssissippi have an alternate authorizer authority?
“Other states have seen the need to sort of reduce the pressure on one authorizer and make it so that multiple authorizers throughout the state can focus on a smaller number of applicants and really giving them the support they need and putting together the best possible application and review process that they can,” Marcellino said.
Empower announced a new program called Embark in December that will help potential operators of both charter and private schools set up shop in the state. The goal, Marcellino said, is to double the number of charter schools by 2025.
Marcellino said Embark will address the number of alternative schooling options in Mississippi, something that hasn’t been addressed until now.
“We believe that there are barriers to starting new schools in Mississippi, there's a lack of support, and there's no local partner on the ground like there are in many states,” Marcellino said.
The pandemic provided an impetus for Embark as parents seek different options, such as microschools, which offer a more individualized approach to education and can vary from as few as five students to as many as 150 learning in a blended-grade environment, according to Marcellino.