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Mississippi policymakers have welcomed charter schools as a promising solution to low test scores and persistent achievement gaps.

But what happens when an education experiment falls short of expectations?

That’s the question before the state’s authorizer board as Mississippi decides whether its first two charter schools can stay open.

Charters enjoy independence from some district and state regulations, but delivering strong academic results is part of the bargain they strike for that autonomy. In Jackson, charters’ ability to meet that bargain have been mixed. Reimagine Prep, a Jackson spin-off of the Nashville-based RePublic Schools charter network, received its first B rating this year. During the school’s first two years, Reimagine earned a D, before improving to a “successful” C school grade.

Midtown Public Charter School, which initially wooed parents with extended school days, two lead teachers per class and an intense focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, received a failing rating for three school years, before improving to a D.

Both middle schools are currently safe from closure under a state law requiring charter school authorizers to close charters with a failing grade in the final year of their trial run.

But Midtown is still under scrutiny.

Related: Are rural charters viable in Mississippi?

In Mississippi, D-rated charters are only eligible for a three-year renewal, instead of five. Midtown might have to agree to certain conditions in order to open its doors next August.

Mississippi is one of more than a dozen states in which charter school authorizers are required to shut down charters with long records of underperformance.

Nationally, the idea of using school closures — in both traditional and charter settings — as a lever to boost student achievement is controversial, since shutdowns can shutter community institutions and disrupt the lives of the very children they’re meant to help. And uprooting students doesn’t always produce better results.

That’s one of the takeaways from a 2017 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) examining the aftermath of school closures in 26 states.

“Closing low-performing schools alone does not automatically lead to better outcomes for students, but needs to be accompanied by effective follow-up measures to ensure better treatment of students,” researchers concluded.

Students leaving a closed school for a school with comparable or poorer test scores tended to perform worse on standardized tests than children who enrolled in a better-performing school, according to the analysis.

Karega Rausch, vice president of research and evaluation for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said there are lessons to learn from Mississippi’s next-door neighbor, Louisiana.

Rausch cited a Tulane University study showing strong gains by students transferring to higher-performing schools. As with the CREDO study, where students transferred was key.

Charters are still a small player on Mississippi’s public education scene. Fewer than 1 percent of students in the Magnolia state attend the schools. But Rausch said Mississippi should avoid joining the ranks of states that have reputations for allowing underperforming charters to remain open, and reiterated the high stakes accompanying closures.

“It should always be a last resort and never come as a surprise,” he said.

This story about charter school authorizers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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