Selected readings on US charter schools
According to the Hechinger Report, the state has only fully funded its school system three times since 1997, and per-pupil spending is falling each year.
Politicians are divided over what to do: Democrats are calling for more funding, while Republicans aren’t sure that more money would help.
Reva Pree is the principal of Lucy Webb Elementary School in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville. She says the funding shortfall is most apparent in her inability to hire experienced teachers.
“The biggest impact is actually bringing certified, qualified teachers to the Delta, to where we have to actually use personnel such as Teach For America,” Pree told Here & Now. “And we have a great turnover on them because they are only here for two years.”
However, Terry Brown, a Republican state senator says if schools are struggling, “they’re not doing something right.”
Brown doesn’t believe more funding will help struggling schools.
“We’re giving them money, but the grades just keep going down, down, down,” Brown said.
He is a proponent of charter schools in the state. The governor of Mississippi recently signed legislation expanding charter schools, as part of a comprehensive education reform package.
Opponents of charter schools argue they take away funding from already inadequately funded public schools.
“We are trying to do something with charter schools, and we have consolidated a couple of districts,” Brown said. “They can criticize us for a lot of things, but they can’t criticize for not trying different things.”
Meanwhile, Pree says the bad press about Mississippi schools, including those in Greenville, doesn’t tell the whole story.
“We have good students,” Pree said. “We have students who are going to college. We have a lot of people who have graduated from Greenville High School who are doctors and lawyers, who have come back to our district.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It’s HERE AND NOW. At the start of the school year, we’ve been hearing a lot about struggling school districts in Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta. Things are not any easier in Mississippi. High school graduation rates are amongst the lowest in the country. The state has taken over several schools, and in others, students lack basic supplies.
Reva Pree is principal of Lucy Webb Elementary School in Greenville. The school got a D rating from the Mississippi Department of Education in 2012. She joins us now. And Principal Pree, can you outline some of your school’s challenges for us?
REVA PREE: Our school is located, just about the schools in the Delta, it’s like 96 percent free and reduced lunch students. A typical student’s usually a single-parent household, but other than that they’re just regular children.
CHAKRABARTI: I’ve seen that in Mississippi, the state has only fully funded schools a handful of times since 1997, and so what has that lack of complete funding, what impact has that had on your school?
PREE: The biggest impact is actually bringing certified, qualified teachers to the Delta to where we have to actually use personnel such as Teach for America, and we have a great turnover on them because they’re only here for two years. And by the time you get them trained, it’s time for them to go.
CHAKRABARTI: So would you say that if you were able to be fully funded, you’d be able to attract that personnel?
PREE: I believe so.
CHAKRABARTI: As you know, there’s been another issue that’s been introduced into Mississippi. When lawmakers passed a bill to allow charter bills into the state, what do you – first of all, what do you think about charter schools?
PREE: I have different views on it. It all depends on who and how and – but when I think a charter school is coming to try to take over for profit only, I have a problem with that.
CHAKRABARTI: And here’s why I’m asking, because in a minute we’re going to speak with a Republican lawmaker, and he has said that he thinks competition from charter schools is what public schools in Mississippi might need.
PREE: Yeah, my first question to that legislature, have you ever been into a school to actually know what goes on inside of a school. And yeah, that’s the part that I found that bothers me is that the legislatures are up there dictating, and a lot of them who has never actually been in a public schools because a lot of them have actually been in parochial or private schools. They really don’t know what goes on.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, well Principal Pree, another thing some lawmakers are saying in Mississippi is that schools have been getting enough funding, but grades are going down regardless. What’s your response to that?
PREE: My response to that is that it’s not necessarily maybe the funding, but it is a lot of times the funding, but what I can see is that we do not have the buy-in a lot of times from the community because our community is still divided a lot along racial lines.
CHAKRABARTI: Principal Pree, forgive me for asking, but what exactly are you trying to say regarding race?
PREE: Well, our school is predominately African-American. A lot of the other students usually go into private schools or parochial schools. And I found out a lot of times when I worked in other districts that had a racial mixture of children and that you had your doctors, and you had your lawyers, and you had all of the people who would come into the schools and help out. We actually had a community school, and I think that’s one of the problems we might have. So we don’t have community schools.
We have good students, but there is a lot of negative publicity that is given to our students, rather than actually saying what’s really good and going on. We had a lot of good things going on in the school.
CHAKRABARTI: Why don’t you share some of those good things with us.
PREE: Well, we have students who are going, when they graduate from us, they’re going to college. We have a lot of people who have graduated from Greenville High School who are actually doctors and lawyers who have come back to our district. Even our superintendent is a graduate of Greenville Public Schools.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Reva Pree is the principal of Lucy Webb Elementary School in Greenville, in the Mississippi Delta. Principal Pree, thank you so much for your time.
PREE: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re listening to HERE AND NOW. Let’s look at the political debate over Mississippi schools. They run along familiar lines. Democrats want more funding. Republicans say it won’t help. Republican State Senate Terry Brown joins us, and Senator, we mentioned a little earlier that the state has only fully funded Mississippi schools three times since 1997. What about this year? Will you vote to fully fund schools?
STATE SENATOR TERRY BROWN: Well no, ma’am. I mean, there’s – that is – it’s called a Mississippi Adequate Education. That is a formula that in my opinion is very skewed because sometimes you may need more money in education, and it doesn’t – the formula doesn’t provide it. Sometimes there’s more money that would go to education, but we don’t have it to do.
CHAKRABARTI: OK, so let me – just so I’m sure I understand you correctly. So you think the problem is the formula and not that the state has enough money.
BROWN: I do. Right, well, the state – I mean, you know, everybody is crunched in their budgets. Then yes, sometimes we have to cut.
CHAKRABARTI: Now I see that teachers in Mississippi are going online and saying that they need money for pencils, papers, books, science equipment. What would you tell them?
BROWN: Well, what I tell them is we passed dollars after dollars to give to these districts, you know, for supplies. And then when you go up, and you find out that some of your districts out there have gotten several hundreds of thousands of dollars in their reserve account, more than what they’re supposed to, then it’s mighty hard to try to just keep giving money to them.
CHAKRABARTI: Now what about charter schools because Republicans in the state recently created a statute that would allow charter schools in Mississippi. There are none now. What’s your take on that?
BROWN: I am very much in favor of charter schools. Whatever we’ve got right now is not working very well. So we’ve got to try something new. And charter schools, I think, is the avenue to go.
CHAKRABARTI: Now Mr. Brown, you know that one of the criticisms of charter schools is that they actually take money out of a district. And so the schools that are already suffering or struggling would be struggling even more because some of their funding would go with students into other charter schools.
BROWN: Exactly right. That’s the way it should be. If those schools are struggling out there, then it tells me they’re not doing something right.
CHAKRABARTI: Now Bill Minor, who’s a columnist at the Clarion Ledger, he writes that when desegregation took place in Mississippi, a lot of private, segregated academies were created at that time. And he’s wondering if charter schools might further that problem. He calls them a backdoor scheme to segregate in Mississippi.
BROWN: I do not agree with him on that one bit. It has nothing to do with race or segregation. It has to do with educating our workforce.
CHAKRABARTI: Well finally, sir, I’m seeing that the National Center for Children in Poverty say that 32 percent of children in Michigan are living in poverty. For them, who are going to public schools in Mississippi, what do you think really is the best thing to assure their futures?
BROWN: Well, what schools they’re going to right now are failing schools. You can go see it in the Delta and certain segments of our state. I mean, we’ve given them money, but the grades just keep going down, down, down. But that’s why we’re trying to do something with charter schools, and we have consolidated a couple of districts over there. You know, they may criticize us for a lot of things, but they can’t criticize us for not trying different things.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, that’s Mississippi State Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Brown. Mr. Brown, thank you so much for your time.
BROWN: Thank y’all.
CHAKRABARTI: The news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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