The public school system in the Mississippi capital of Jackson is in crisis.
A damning investigative audit released in August found the Jackson Public School district - known as JPS - in violation of 24 out of the 32 standards that all public school districts in the state must meet. Schools throughout the district failed to provide textbooks and parent handbooks, repeatedly failed to hold parent-teacher conferences, and failed to provide documentation of immunization records. Several elementary schools also failed to install safety covers on electrical outlets, and repeated fights between students in middle and upper grades outraged fearful parents and made local headlines.
The audit findings weren't news to JPS parents. When I visited Jackson in July, they detailed the problems plaguing the district. Several parents mentioned the lack of textbooks: one night one kid would get to take home a book to do homework, the next night, another kid. Some schools are in need of extensive repairs to address, among other things, playground equipment that didn’t meet safety standards and nonfunctioning emergency lighting. Parents also mentioned how poorly attended some schools were. (According to the audit, 46 schools failed to comply with the procedures for monitoring and reporting student absences and at least 17 schools failed to implement the district’s dropout prevention plan.)Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
In September, the Mississippi Department of Education recommended a state takeover of the district, with officials saying, “Without intervention by the state Board of Education and Mississippi Board of Education this would result in the continuation of an inadequate and unstable educational environment.” JPS’s interim superintendent had argued that the district had already taken steps to address all of the violations detailed in the audit and the Jackson mayor had claimed the audit was done with “nefarious intent” and that a takeover was not the answer, but the decision is now with Governor Phil Bryant. The next month, when the department announced the state’s 2016-17 accountability scores, Jackson Public School District received an “F” for the second year in a row, after receiving a “D” the two years before that.
In 2013, Mississippi passed legislation allowing an authorizer board to approve up to 15 charter schools a year. Charter schools, which offer greater autonomy over things like the curriculum as well as the length of the school day or year, provide hope for many families in chronically underperforming districts.
But they don’t come without problems. In July 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents with students in JPS challenging the constitutionality of the Charter Schools Act. SPLC claims that the charter schools are being illegally funded with tax dollars that are required to go to traditional public schools that are controlled by the state. In addition to the Jackson Public School District, the lawsuit named Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and the Mississippi Department of Education as defendants, but since then, other parties with a vested interest in the outcome have joined as defendants as well.
“The answer to Mississippi’s public education problems isn’t to siphon money away from public schools,” said Will Bardwell, one of the SPLC attorneys arguing the case. “But that’s exactly what the Charter Schools Act does: It takes millions of dollars out of public schools that already have been underfunded for decades. Mississippi should be investing more in public schools, not less.”
The state declined to comment on the case citing ongoing litigation, but in court filings and arguments, the office of the attorney general emphasized that charter schools are free and public, and argued that the constitution does not require that tax dollars go only to schools that under state or local supervision. The state’s lawyer explained that local tax dollars follow the local student to the charter school, which she said is consistent with other school funding throughout the state. “While the traditional public school district receives less money in this scenario, the school also is relieved of the responsibility to educate the child. There is thus an equal transfer from one public school system to another public school system,” she wrote in June. Other defendants in the lawsuit made similar arguments, and JPS also argued in court papers that it did not believe it should be a defendant in the case as it is merely following the law.
This lawsuit comes at a time when school choice is a national buzzword, especially with the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a woman with no experience as an educator who has spent decades and millions of dollars advocating for school choice in her native Michigan. The result, according to an investigation by the >Detroit Free Press, was a highly unregulated system in which there was little accountability for how tax dollars were spent and charter school students didn’t perform measurably better than students at traditional public schools. DeVos, recently called the “Most Hated Cabinet Secretary” by HuffPost, was only confirmed by a tie-breaker vote from Vice President Mike Pence, and the New York Times reported last month that meetings with advocates of religious, private, and charter schools dominated the first six months of her calendar.. Although the states oversee their education systems, the federal government plays an influential role through funding, standardization, and protecting the civil rights of students. The Trump administration’s budget, introduced in May, proposed cutting education spending overall by 13.5 percent, but increasing spending on school choice program, allocating a $168 million for expanding charter schools (which are public), and $250 million for private school choice, or voucher, programs (which funnel public money to for-profit private schools, including some religious schools). Both the House and Senate rejected these school choice proposals in the budgets they passed this fall.
While the Mississippi lawsuit is in state court and therefore the verdict won’t necessarily have a federal impact, Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said it’s part of a wave of litigation happening around the country.
“We're seeing a lot of action in courts right now about the legality of school choice programs,” he said. “That's happening at the same time that we're seeing a change in the politics related to school choice and charter schools, in part because President Trump and Secretary DeVos are divisive figures who are closely associated with school choice reforms. It's an interesting and very active time for these issues.”
For Lutaya Stewart, the fight is both personal and professional. She is a special education teacher at John Hopkins Elementary School in the district and has a 6-year-old foster son who attends a JPS school as well. Her 7-year-old foster daughter, whose adoption she hopes will go through next month, switched this year from a public school in the district to a private school that Stewart believes is better suited to accommodate her developmental delays. “I always knew I was going to adopt, even in high school,” Stewart told me.
She joined the case as a plaintiff because she’s concerned about what a lack of funding means for both her students and her family.
“Special education teachers co-teach with a general education teacher in the same classroom,” she explained this summer. “When they cut the funding, they cut teachers. All the classrooms suffer from more children.” And as class sizes grow, she said, the remaining teachers are left to “take up the slack and can’t focus on the kids who require personal attention.”
A recent NPR report indicated that states spent an average of $11,841 per student in 2013, but Mississippi spent $9,492 and Jackson Public School District spent $8,121. And although every state has a different way of calculating the amount of money necessary to educate its students, making them difficult to compare, the Mississippi legislature has fully funded education according to its own formula only twice in two decades. Critics say charter schools have only exacerbated the problem.
According to the SPLC complaint, Jackson Public School District – which serves about 30,000 students a year - lost more than $1.8 million to the two original charter schools (Midtown Public Charter School and Reimagine Prep) in the 2015-2016 year, with more than $4 million projected to be lost the next year thanks to expanded enrollment and the addition of a third school (Smilow Prep). Defendants have disputed that JPS schools have lost any money as a result of the charter schools that have opened in the area.
During my trip to Jackson in July, I also met Charles and Evelyn Araujo and their family over sweet tea in their wooded neighborhood home. Though the Araujos could afford to send their kids to private school, their oldest son, Joseph, 21, attended a JPS school before heading off to college, and Matthew, 17, and Aaron, 12, are both currently enrolled in the district’s schools as well.
Charles and Evelyn, also plaintiffs in the case, are deeply invested in the public school system. Charles, whose parents were divorced, moved from California to live with his mother and stepfather in the heart of the Mississippi Delta when he was 15 years old. “It was a culture shock,” Charles said. When he went with his mother to the district office where he would enroll in school, he was advised to attend E.E. Bass rather than the school closest to the trailer parker where his family lived. The ladies in the office, he recalled, told him something along the lines of “that’s not the white school” in reference to the nearby option. Charles had to quit E. E. Bass after just one year to help provide for his family, but eventually he finished high school at nearby Greenville High and graduated from Millsaps College, a small private university near downtown Jackson.
Evelyn’s father was a physics professor at the historically black college of Tougaloo, both of her parents are education advocates, and she graduated from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, a private institution, before becoming a teacher for the deaf. According to a 2013 executive summary, approximately 90.8 percent of all JPS students are from low-income families, but, Evelyn said, education can be the “tide that lifts all boats.”
Though charter schools and voucher programs get lumped under the school choice umbrella, it’s important to understand the distinction.
“Since the early days of charter schools, there has been a notion of a basic ‘bargain’ in that charter schools accept stricter accountability in exchange for greater autonomy (compared to traditional public schools),” said Valant, the Brookings fellow. “Many charter school authorizers have been too lenient on low-performing schools, but there is a clear process in place that holds charter schools accountable to public entities and generates information about school performance for authorizers and the public.” (In Mississippi, an authorizer board, created by the Charter Schools Act, receives 3 percent of per-student funding designated for charter schools as compensation.) Private school choice programs, on the other hand, don’t have the same requirements for accountability and transparency, Valant explained.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below . Charter schools are also hardly one-size-fits-all. Some are run by outside management groups (both nonprofit and for-profit) with schools located across the country. ReImagine and Smilow are run by Tennessee-based nonprofit charter group RePublic Schools, for example. Others are founded and run locally, like Midtown Public Charter School. Midtown was founded by parents, incorporates a parent-led education council, and operates under the longstanding community growth and development nonprofit Midtown Partners. Proponents generally argue that charters promote innovation and competition, give parents more choice, and are the answer to underperforming school districts, while opponents argue that despite the requirements the charter schools must meet to stay open, they are still less accountable than public schools, both in terms of upholding academic standards and protecting students against discrimination.
In October 2016, in a move that was swiftly met by backlash from charter school supporters, including civil rights groups, the NAACP called for a moratorium on expanding charter schools until they “receive the same level of oversight, civil rights protections and provide the same level of transparency” as traditional public schools. This year, the organization issued a report, in which it made a series of recommendations including calling for the elimination of for-profit charter schools and better regulation of state authorizers. “Even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children,” it stated.
But families who send their kids to charter schools don’t think their children should have to wait to receive what they believe is a superior educational experience.
In a classroom at Midtown Public Charter School, just north of downtown Jackson, Pamela Seaton explained to me her point of view. “My money goes to pay for public school as much as anyone else,” Seaton said. “And, to me, if you have money in your pocket and you don’t use it wisely like the MDE [Mississippi Department of Education], well, it is going to get taken away from you and go somewhere else.”
It was the second-to-last day of school, and Pamela beamed as her 12-year-old granddaughter, Raelynn, told me how easy it was to recreate Angry Birds with the coding she’d learned.
“When we heard about Midtown Charter, I faxed papers right over,” said Pamela, who has a master’s degree in childhood education. “Well, then I had to go in in person and finalize some paperwork. I pulled into the parking lot, and I realized, Oh my God! This is the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] building where I used to come and get food when I was pregnant with Raelynn’s mom!”
The building – located in an area where, she told me, “people would walk down the streets with their guns, some just keeping watch because the cops didn’t come back in here” – had been gutted and rehabbed, painted bright red with a colorful mural of the Jackson skyline and a giant yellow sun. That her granddaughter attends school in the building where Pamela used to get public assistance is “like the circle of life,” Pamela said. “There are no accidents in God’s world.”
“We used to be able to put her in private schools,” Pamela said, tilting her head toward her grandchild. But Pamela had gone back to school herself just a few years earlier, and the bills were mounting. "Maggie [Raelynn's mother] got sick and then my husband got sick so we had to put her back in public school."
There, Raelynn felt out of place, and her grades started slipping. After school she would go straight to her room without even a “hello” to her family. She remembers saying something like, “Grandma, why did you put me in this mess?”
But almost as soon as Raelynn started at Midtown, she was back to her old self – engaged and animated, both in the classroom and at home. This, Pamela said, is what she tells people when the inevitable school choice argument comes up.
“People fear the unknown because it is something that is different,” she said.
I spoke to several other Midtown families during my trip to Mississippi, and I heard the same sentiment again and again: They love the school and believe it’s giving their kids the chance at a real education, rather than viewing them as names on an attendance sheet. Charles Harris noted the school’s partnership with nearby Millsaps College, providing his kids Cortavia and Certeze with expanded opportunities. Jakecia Baley’s parents, Oaklyn and Latasha, said Midtown has started to bring their smart, shy daughter out of her shell.
Midtown petitioned to intervene in the lawsuit as a defendant in September 2016, claiming that striking down the Charter School Act would cut off $890,000 in annual funding for the school and force it to close. (Parents of students from the other two charter schools, represented by a conservative legal group, and the state’s charter association also joined the lawsuit.) But despite the level of satisfaction the parents and children express, the charter schools are far from perfect and hardly a magic solution to a problem that runs deep in their community and in this country. When the Department of Education released its recent accountability scores, Midtown, like JPS, got an “F” for the second year in a row, and ReImagine and Smilow both got “D”s.
Valant said this isn’t surprising. It can take a few years for charter schools to ramp up, but poverty also plays a role. “Even an outstanding school that serves a high-poverty community will have a hard time matching the proficiency rates of a mediocre school in a wealthy area,” he said.
This country’s school accountability systems, he explained, are often unfair measures for schools attended by low-income students. “Imagine a middle school that serves mostly wealthy students who arrive well above grade level,” he said. “That school could be lousy and still achieve a high proficiency rate at the end of the year. In contrast, imagine a middle school that serves students who arrive at their door several years below grade level. That school could be outstanding - getting kids to learn at a rapid pace - and find that many of these students still don't reach the state's proficiency line. Using only proficiency rates to measure school quality would be like running a race in which everyone uses the same finish line but starts from a different distance.” He added that poor students are less likely to have the same educational tools (like tutors and technology) at home as their economically advantaged peers and they might not have access to resources to address mental and physical issues that can affect their performance in school..
“The million-dollar question is how we could sharply improve the learning and development of students in poverty,” Valant said. “I don't believe there's a single answer to that question – a magic bullet for closing achievement gaps,” but he concluded it will need the combined effort of schools and policymakers.
Another charter school, Clarksdale Collegiate, was approved in September 2017 and will open in the fall of 2018. It’s the first to be approved outside Jackson, in the rural Mississippi Delta – one of the poorest regions of the country. Smilow Collegiate, serving kindergarteners and first graders on a shared campus with Smilow Prep, will open as well.
It is unclear when the judge in the lawsuit will render a verdict, but parents from both sides of the case told me they expect it to be appealed either way
At a hearing in April, Michael Hurst, a lawyer from the Mississippi Justice Institute representing parents from Smilow and ReImagine, argued that if SPLC prevailed, “the charter schools will shut down. The children that I represent will be forced to leave charter schools, where they have made enormous gains in reading levels, in confidence, in not being bullied…” SPLC said that’s not the case – the JPS parents didn’t object to the charter schools themselves, but to the way they are funded. (Hurst was sworn in last month as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi and his replacement on the case has not been announced, but reached for comment, the umbrella organization over MJI echoed his message, saying an adverse court decision would be “devastating” for charter school students.)
The judge in this case has indicated a concern with the selective nature of the schools, which, though free, have a limited number of spots. If applications exceed availability, Hurst explained at the hearing, they’ll hold a lottery to determine placement.
"Well, I’ve never won the lottery,” the judge replied. “Have you?”
But despite how polarizing the issue is, parents on both sides of the issue say they bear each other no ill well. Evelyn may favor public schools while Pamela is pro-charter, but they recognize that everyone just wants what’s best for their kids.
“Let’s be real clear,” Evelyn said. “I am not mad at nor do I hold parents on the other side of the charter school issue responsible. I hold the legislature responsible and it is the legislature that has put us in this position.”
“Parents are like tree planters who want to nurture and grow their kids,” Pamela said. “Some want to do it where they stand and others need to move to new soil.”
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Source : http://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a13133774/charter-public-school-choice-lawsuit-mississippi/