Expanding education pluralism to the other 99 percent

I noted the painfully gradual pace of charter school openings in Mississippi in a previous post. Charter schools benefit students and families by providing proximate options that vary meaningfully and have available seats. Educators likewise benefit from being able to open public schools that follow their vision of a high-quality education, but a single school per year pace merely scratches the surface of the possible benefits from charter schools.

In 2015 the Brookings Institution made the above map specifying the percentage of students in each state that had one or more charter school operating in their zip code for the 2014-15 school year. A quick scan of Mississippi’s seven charter schools allows an update of the Brookings map for 2021.

Mississippi has 423 zip codes, and currently, six of them have one or more charter school operating in them (one zip code in Jackson has two charter schools). This takes Mississippi from zero percent in the 2014-15 map to 1% in 2021-22. At the current pace, all but the youngest readers of this post will long since slipped the mortal coil before Mississippi will a double-digit percentage of zip codes providing charter school access.

Since Mississippi’s charter school law passed in 2013, the pace of new schools opening has averaged approximately one per year statewide. Individual charter schools often have more applications than seats. Even thus the small percentage of Mississippi zip codes with proximity to a charter school may have more demand than supply of seats.

Variety they say is the spice of life. Education is no different. States with well-developed charter sectors give parents a menu of options to select between in finding a school that suits the needs of their child- schools focused on the arts, others on classical education, others on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Many charter schools focus on giving students with troubled academic careers a second chance, others on back- to- basics education. Recent years have seen the advent of charter schools focused on helping students with disabilities. Around the country charter schools have developed equestrian schools, vocational schools, aviation-focused schools, and (the latest trend) micro-schools. Remember however these schools primarily benefit students near their locations.

“Charter schools grow and flourish in environments that provide multiple ways for groups to obtain charters to open schools,” the Center for Education Reform observed. “States that grant universities the ability to charter schools tend to enjoy a robust charter school movement where the resources of higher education are brought to bear on K12 problems through high standards of accountability, technical assistance, and additional oversight.”

In Mississippi, there is only one charter school authorizer.

Lawmakers in many states have empowered universities to authorize charter schools because expertise universities can bring to bear. The act of authorizing schools puts their academic reputations on the line as “skin in the game” in the authorization process. A university that authorizes an ineffective school will risk having its educational competence diminished.

District schools will continue to serve a large majority of Mississippi students regardless of the number of options created. Even Arizona with the largest charter sector in the country has 78 percent of public-school students attending district schools. Arizona students however attend district schools less and less because they have to, and more and more because they’ve chosen those schools as the best fit. Not coincidentally, Arizona students learned more per year of schooling than students in any other state in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All Mississippi families pay their education taxes and all should have access to meaningful educational variety. More Mississippi teachers deserve the opportunity to open and run their own schools. Pluralism should not be the privilege held by a select few when it is possible to provide it to all.